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Stopping Big Brother

DW staff (dc)February 16, 2009

Top government, union and industry representatives are meeting on Monday, Feb. 16 to discuss workplace privacy legislation in the wake of a spying scandal at national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn.

Deutsche Bahn building with signal
The Deutsche Bahn spying scandal has prompted discussionImage: AP

At the invitation of Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, the government's labor and economics ministers, data protection commissioner and union and industry representatives are meeting to discuss privacy in the workplace. Specifically, the issue on the table is whether there should be a law banning companies from conducting vetting schemes on their employees, even if the purpose is to root out corruption.

Ahead of the talks, Schaeuble himself spoke out against a legal ban on data merging -- in other words, screening the private data of employees and comparing this with the data of supplier companies. Currently, such screening is legal only if the employees themselves and the workers' council agree to it beforehand. However, as scandals at Deutsche Bahn, national telecommunications operator Deutsche Telekom as well as several discounter supermarket chains have shown, companies have been engaging in covert screening and surveillance operations, for purposes many say had nothing to do with combating corruption.

Still, Schaeuble told the Monday edition of the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel he believes employers have to be left some scope to take action when they suspect corruption among the workforce.

"Precisely in large companies, there's the danger of corruption, and it's the duty of the management board to take action against this," he told the paper.

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble
The talks are at the behest of Interior Minister Wolfgang SchaeubleImage: AP

He added that there has to be a balance between an employer's interest in preventing corruption and an employee's right to privacy. A law against data merging "would be a step too far," Schaeuble warned.

The Confederation of German Employers, BDA, also maintains that Germany's existing privacy legislation is sufficient, and that there is no need for a special law to protect employee privacy. The current laws could, at most, be fleshed out with a few additional clauses, BDA head Reinhard Göhner told public broadcaster ARD on Monday.

Unions want better protection

The BDA's view is at odds with the position taken by the association of German unions, DGB, which says that employees need to be protected from unwittingly being spied on by their employers. DGB head Michael Sommer told Berlin's RBB-Inforadio on Monday that an employee privacy protection act is urgently needed. If a company has legitimate grounds to suspect corruption in an employee, it should inform the police and state prosecutors, not take on the role of detective itself, he said.

The head of Germany's services union Verdi has also called for legislation against unauthorized disclosure of information about employees. Frank Bsirske, who was himself targeted in the surveillance operation conducted by Deutsche Telekom, told ARD that the recent scandals at Telekom and Deutsche Bahn brought to mind the kind of "secret police tactics" that not even the Federal Criminal Police Office is authorized to use.

Ahead of Monday's talks, Germany's data protection commissioner, Peter Schaar, said the country cannot sanction the kind of covert surveillance operations carried out by Deutsche Bahn.

The company has acknowledged that the bank data of 173,000 employees was secretly compared with customer data in an effort to uncover corrupt practices. The first operation was conducted in 2002-2003 and, according to new information confirmed by Deutsche Bahn two weeks ago, a second employee investigation was carried out in 2005. Public prosecutors are examining the data use to determine whether the company broke the law.