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German Corporations in Trouble over Surveillance

February 24, 2009

There is a major ongoing storm in Germany over the behaviour of its major corporations in spying on workers. There is a nice summary news report from the BBC which you can watch here.

The newest scandal emerged in January when it was revealed that the railway company, Deutsche Bahn, had conducted surveillance operations against thousands of its staff, both workers and management, possibly over years. The operations, with names like ‘Squirrel’, involved all kinds of intrusive internal espionage including tracking family members. The company’s aim was apparently to do with corruption and links to other rival corporations but the management have now admitted they went too far.

Internal security was also the reason behind the massive surveillance operations at Deutsche Telekom, the communications giant, possibly dating back to 2000. Here journalists and managers were targeted by a private detective agency. And of course then there was last year’s scandal over the way that the Lidl supermarket chain created a kind of Stasi-style operation at many of its stores and warehouses in Germany and the Czech Republic with secret cameras and operatives making detailed notes on the movements (especially toilet breaks) of its employees. According to The Guardian, the level of personal detail recorded by the store was incredible, one entry read: “Frau M wanted to make a call with her mobile phone at 14.05 … She received the recorded message that she only had 85 cents left on her prepaid mobile. She managed to reach a friend with whom she would like to cook this evening, but on condition that her wage had been paid into her bank, because she would otherwise not have enough money to go shopping.”

In the BBC report, the conclusion seems to be that better data protections laws are needed. Certainly this is true. But the cases involving corporations are important because they provide clear and comprehensible examples of how people ‘with nothing to hide’ can be targeted anyway and do have to be worried. There are enough of them too to show that this is not a series of isolated cases, but a part of a ‘culture of surveillance’. However it seems that there is a mood in Germany for much stronger action, and a growing awareness that the country cannot, unlike in the UK at present, or indeed Germany in its own recent past, be allowed to slip into a situation in which surveillance becomes normal. This means more than stronger DP, it means not allowing corporations and government to reduce fundamental liberties with arguments about ‘exceptions’. There seems to be growing awareness from the strong German Trades Unions in particular about this, we will see if this translates into wider social, and state, action.

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