Opinion: Data collection puts our freedom at risk | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 18.01.2015
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Opinion: Data collection puts our freedom at risk

Following each terrorist attack, politicians and populists chime in with calls in favor of mass data collection. DW's Marcel Fürstenau explains why this proves useless as a measure in the struggle against terrorism.

Are you an honest, law-abiding citizen? Always tell the truth and pay your taxes? Congratulations! Because the argument used by the nanny state, and other supporters of data retention, seems to apply to you: "Those who have nothing to hide don't have anything to fear." Apart from the fact that this claim is demonstrably false, you should once again stop and reflect: Do you really have no secrets? Things or thoughts that not everyone should know? If your answer is still "Yes," then you should read on anyway. Perhaps I can clear up some lingering doubts you might have about the supposed benefits of data retention.

At this point, I am not giving away any secrets by telling you I am a journalist. I belong to a group of individuals bound to professional secrecy, along with doctors, the clergy and lawyers. We all regularly conduct confidential interviews - with and without a telephone. These talks can range anywhere from topics of a serious illness, mental distress, criminal offenses or sensitive research. "Ok. And?" you might be wondering. Many people think those conversations remain private.

This presumption, however, in no way corresponds to the logic of the intelligence agencies. They want to stop terrorists from carrying out attacks, and to do this, they supposedly need all of your and my telephone and internet connection data.

Under suspicion

Have you ever wondered why the terrible shootings in Paris were able to take place, even though mass data collection - regardless of whether suspicion exists - is allowed in France? Because first off, millions of telephone numbers and computer IP addresses are little more than endless columns of digits. When investigators want to find out more, they have to look at the contents. In the case of concrete suspicion, authorities in Germany can listen in with judiciary-approved telephones. They use this legal, above-board measure during anti-terror campaigns much more than in the past. And in doing so, the state is able to keep preventing terrorist attacks and other criminal acts.

They won't succeed, however. Data retention inevitably remains a blunt weapon in the fight against terrorism. For privacy, on the other hand, it represents a huge risk. The fact is, it's accepted that in theory, the movements of anyone can be traced at any time. The secret services target people based on filters or search terms, because they frequently call suspicious numbers or browse certain webpages. I do that, but for professional reasons. All sorts of unsavory topics such as racism and various forms of terrorism are among the main topics I work with.

Transparent citizens

My research doesn't end on the trustworthy websites of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. I sometimes call up people - ones I'd never dream of having a beer with - and who are also perhaps being observed by intelligence services. In the eyes of the government authorities, therefore, that would make me potentially suspicious. Even as a private citizen I occasionally receive emails from people known to the authorities. Once I even ordered a book on right-wing extremism over the Internet - that was for my son who had to do a school presentation on the subject.

If you think I'm coming across as hysterical or paranoid, I suggest you read a study by the University of Stanford in the United States. The test subjects voluntarily let their data be stored for an extended period of time. What the researchers found was that analysis of the data allowed conclusions to be drawn about people, for example on their physical and mental health, which people might not want made public. Such data can always fall into the wrong hands. And there are daily reports about the theft of sensitive data. It can happen to anyone.

So, what do you think of mass data collection now?

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