Watching the Watchers: Germany’s Commitment to Privacy

The global furor surrounding Edward Snowden’s June 2013 revelation of U.S. Government data collecting and processing practices seems to have calmed as the initial outrage has become a more organized push for transparency and reform.

The European Union has made far greater strides toward transparency than the U.S. in recent years, insofar as each EU member country must have a comprehensive set of laws protecting its citizens against unauthorized data collection, whether by individuals or government agencies.

This European approach to careful protection of individual privacy has been made quite clear through such sweeping policies as ending information sharing with the U.S.– a decision which the German government made shortly after the Snowden leaks, and effective immediately.

Information gathering isn't always so tranparent... Credit: Tuzen at Flickr

Information gathering isn’t always so tranparent…
Credit: Tuzen at Flickr

For those of you who don’t read German, cloud security company Perspecsys lays out a pretty clear picture of the significant reforms set forth in Germany’s Bundesdatenschutzgesetz, also known as the BDSG, because the Germans love acronyms.

Germany's BDSG explicitly protects individual rights to privacy.

Germany’s BDSG explicitly protects individual rights to privacy.

The BDSG has existed in various forms since the 1960s, but the 2009 reforms to the law have put a more intense emphasis on personal privacy in an increasingly digitized world.

The 2009 reforms include:

  • Data collection requires express permission from the individual in question. This applies to any and all data, from name to IP address.
  • In granting permission to gather an individual’s data, the individual in question determines the exact conditions of use of said data, including purpose, location, and expiration of permission.
  • At any time, any individual who has made their data available for any purpose may revoke their permission without opposition.
  • All organizations which manage personal data must have comprehensive policies in place to protect said data in accordance with the BDSG.


The BDSG is a sort of legal solidification of what seems to be a growing sentiment amongst the German public, but in addition to civilian protests such as the “Blurmany” debacle, there is a devotion to the cause of privacy throughout the German government itself.


Okay, so this is exaggerated, but it's exaggerated for effect!

Okay, so this is exaggerated, but it’s exaggerated for effect!

UK-based blogger and eDisclosure activist Chris Dale helps to put this predilection for privacy in a personal context in his analysis of four articles concerning data privacy in Germany, writing:

“We consent to the erosion of our privacy continually, usually as a result of an unconscious trade-off between that erosion and some benefit – if we choose to carry a mobile phone, then our location is traceable, but the benefit outweighs the downside. The same is true of many other web or GPS-based functions. The difference between them and Street View is that the latter is disconnected from our own choice – we may choose not to use Street View but we have little control over its usefulness to those who want to eye up our houses for burglarious purposes, or over the risk that it happens to catch us coming out of a massage parlour, as happened to one man”

I feel that a point like this helps to distinguish the real rallying cry of those Germans who have a real desire for privacy. The issue isn’t that these people have anything to hide, but rather that without transparency and protective measures, there is no way of knowing who could be looking at your data for what reason.

The tradeoff that Dale mentions has been heavy on my mind lately: where does convenience require a sacrifice? Is it really worth your privacy to be able to find a gas station near you when you really need it? Feel free to comment below, and be sure to look both ways as you leave the massage parlor- you never know who’s watching.