The Federal Commissioner for Data Protection has accused the German government of "culpable neglect" in protecting data privacy. He said the government should halt plans for greater access to phone and Internet records.
Who's in the driver's seat concerning data privacy?
Fundamental civil liberties in Germany are increasingly under attack from state authorities and private businesses seeking to snoop into peoples' lives, said German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection Peter Schaar during an annual data protection presentation in Berlin on Tuesday.
Schaar accused security officials of violating the law in their attempts to fight terror, adding that the Federal Criminal Police Office had passed on information to Germany's domestic intelligence agency -- the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) -- that was unnecessary for its fight against terrorism.
Out of step with technology
Commissioner Schaar was displeased about government access to personal data
Schaar said modern technology provides plenty of opportunities for unauthorized access to personal data that had previously been protected under stringent laws.
"Data protection laws have not kept up with the advance of technology," Schaar said, calling for an update of data privacy laws. "Complete surveillance is already technologically possible today."
In addition to technology making it possible to observe people's actions in the privacy of their homes and offices, he said "businesses can access and exploit that personal data."
Though thorough in his criticism of the government, Schaar also put some of the blame for deteriorating privacy at the feet of private individuals, many of whom willing share private information.
"There is an exhibitionist tendency among people themselves that makes it easy to glean specific data about them from the Internet," he said.
Complaints about violations
Schaar warned that Germany has embarked on the road to an Orwellian-style surveillance state that runs counter to the principle of individual freedom and a state based on the rule of law.
The introduction of new anti-terror laws in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, he argued, has led to a situation in which law enforcement officials and intelligence services are illegally exchanging data that should be kept separate.
Plans to give police automatic access to fingerprints have been scrapped
In addition, the commissioner strongly criticized plans for a new law to give authorities greater access to phone and Internet records and enabling authorities to access a computer's contents without the owner's knowledge.
Schaar also criticized a government plan to store the fingerprints of all adult Germans in a central database. After intense debate within the government, German media reported Tuesday that plans to store digital fingerprints had been scrapped.
Fighting terrorism vs. personal freedoms
Proponents, including Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, have argued the measures Schaar criticized are needed to fight terrorism. The anti-terror measures and wider pre-emptive police powers have met with resistance in Germany, which remains particularly sensitive to state surveillance due to the legacy of the Nazi regime and former East German secret police.
"We must not allow the government to upset the balance between people's right to security and their freedoms," Schaar said. "Unfortunately, I have the impression that the government is bent on tipping the scale against civil liberties."