Weekly Review

The Lives of Others

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s decision to legalize widespread video surveillance in the wake of the Christmas market terror attack signals a new age for one of the world’s biggest defenders of personal privacy.

  • Facts


    • The Bundestag on Friday passed legislation that will permit video surveillance of the public at large sporting events and public venues
    • Previously, German privacy law prohibited the filming of individuals without their express consent.
    • Advocates said the new law was needed to help investigate terror attacks.
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Drones flying over Honolulu cityscape, Hawaii, United States
Germany passed a law on Friday that could authorize widespread video surveillance of sport stadiums, big events and public gathering places. Source: Getty Images / Blend Images

Thirty years ago, East Germany was a paranoid, failing communist state in the late stages of economic collapse, a victim of flawed ideology and poor execution. But one thing East Germans did better than most nations at the time was spy on their own people.

Today, the Bundestag passed a law permitting reunified Germany, for vastly different reasons, most of them good, to basically do the same. With little resistance, lawmakers set in motion the video surveillance of public places – sport stadiums, shopping centers and pedestrian walkways.

In the United States, and especially in Britain, the video-surveillance capital of Europe, pedestrians have become accustomed to living under the eye of security cameras. Germany, because of its Stasi and Nazi past, had resisted widespread tracking in the years following 9-11.

But the Christmas market attack that killed 12 people in Berlin pushed Germany reluctantly into the present. More specifically, it prompted legislators to cast off a key pillar of the nation’s strict privacy law – the right to control one’s own image.

Most of the world may not think it really matters if German shoppers, or Bayern Munich fans, are now routinely videotaped for preventative purposes by unseen security or police officials. And in a sense, it doesn’t matter, especially if it stops the next maniacs from their carnage.

But in a global sense, when the privacy meter moves in Germany, it shifts for the rest of the world too.

Most of the world may not think it really matters if German shoppers, or Bayern Munich fans, are now routinely videotaped for preventative purposes by unseen security or police officials.


Germany has always been the global iconoclast in privacy, adhering stubbornly to seeming antiquated standards of personal “spheres’’ that seem quaint in our app-fueled age. Largely because of its influence, the European Union’s legal approach to privacy is similarly strict, barring data mining practices that are uncontroversial and common in the United States.

Germany, for example, was the first nation to stand up to Google in 2009 when the search engine leader began compiling a photographic and Wifi archive of every house and apartment in the world.

Regulators like Johannes Caspar, who is based in Hamburg where Google has its German headquarters, forced the software giant to at least give German citizens the right to opt out of Google’s digital world, by having their auto license plates and windows blurred from public scrutiny.

But unfortunately this week, a lone terrorist succeeded where even Google, one of the world’s most powerful companies, couldn’t prevail – in convincing Germans to give up a tenet of their privacy law.

Now, as the mobile-digital marketplace matures, and the algorithms become more learned, and the digital stalking of consumers rises to a fine art, Germany and the world will be a little less protected from the web, which was created to help humanity, but is now being used to keep an eye on it.


Kevin O’Brien is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To reach him: obrien@handelsblatt.com



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