8 October 2008—Life in the former German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, was no picnic. This grim socialist state was known for the extraordinary amount of spying it carried out on its own citizens. Conservative estimates suggest that 1 in 50 East Germans regularly collaborated with the Ministry for State Security—the infamous Stasi. Although such pervasive intrusions into their personal lives are outside the direct experience of young Germans today, some of them have dubbed their government’s latest rules on the retention of Internet data by Internet service providers ”Stasi 2.0.” And they’re angry enough about it to take to the streets. Demonstrations are planned this Saturday for Berlin and other cities.
Germany, along with other European nations, is in the process of following through on a directive issued by the European Commission in 2006 requiring ISPs to begin retaining records of Internet access, e-mail, and Internet-based telephony. The data, which are to be held between six months and two years, will not include the content of the communications, but there must be sufficient information to identify the source and destination of the message and to log the date, time, and, in the case of telephony, the duration of the contact. The directive also mandates that similar data about telephone calls made from land lines and mobile phones in Europe also be retained. The rationale, of course, is that this information will help officials combat serious crimes, such as acts of terrorism.
Tracking the source and destination of essentially all electronic communication indeed promises to aid investigators probing nefarious activity. But some Europeans believe the social costs of such widespread snooping outweigh the possible gains. In 2005, privacy advocates presented the European Parliament with more than 58 000 signatures opposing the adoption of the directive, yet it passed with little attention from the media or debate within larger German society. ”We saw clearly that we had to go on the streets,” says Ricardo Cristof Remmert-Fontes, a spokesperson for the German Working Group on Data Retention.
And many Germans did take to the streets. On 22 September 2007, Remmert-Fontes’s group helped organize a protest in Berlin, where he says more than 15 000 participated. This past May, his group spearheaded a second round of ”Freedom Not Fear” rallies in more than 30 German cities. And on 11 October, the group will be orchestrating yet another set of demonstrations, not just in Germany but throughout Europe--and even beyond.
In England, for example, where ISPs and telecommunications companies have been retaining such data and providing it to authorities on a voluntary basis since 2001, a demonstration is planned near London’s New Scotland Yard. Stockholm will see a similar protest take place across from the Swedish parliament. Activists in Madrid will hold a CCTV mapping party, to help bring attention to the privacy implications of the many surveillance cameras installed in that city. The goings-on in Berlin will perhaps be the most extravagant, beginning with a rally in the afternoon between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, which houses the German parliament, and ending in the evening with what Remmert-Fontes describes as ”art actions and lectures” at some of the city’s more famous clubs.
Whether such grassroots activities will influence lawmakers in any of these nations is difficult to judge. It is also hard to know whether giving law-enforcement officials access to such data will ultimately prove all that effective in thwarting terrorists, who can adopt various technical countermeasures to keep their communications secret. What is clear is that many people are voicing their growing concern about the erosion of privacy in the new digital universe, where records of your physical location, communication partners, and Web searches are proving easy to come by and every bit as revealing as the old-fashioned spying of government informants.
This story was revised on October 10, 2008