Handelsblatt Explains

Why Germans Are So Private About Their Data

56534320 DPA cyper security
Today's Son of Man hides behind a firewall. Source: DPA

You can always pick out the foreigners in a German spa: They’re the ones who stay wrapped in their towels, even though local rules plainly state: No Towels, No Shoes, No Bathing Suits. The Germans, by contrast, are comfortable in the buff, and not just in the spa. You can find Germans changing on the beach at the lakeside or keeping tan lines away after work in the park. While North Americans grow up referring to “private parts”, Germans see nothing private in what everyone already has.

But when it comes to other things, especially personal data – like name, address, friends online and offline, purchases, emails – Germans are notoriously bashful, whereas Americans are (from the German point of view) shockingly indiscreet. The ministry for families offers stickers to foil webcam spies. Google Streetview has to blur out lots of apartment buildings in Germany. And foreign internet firms wanting to operate in Germany often face a legal quagmire.

German angst and German law have progressed in tandem. In 1970, the state of Hesse passed the first data protection law in the world. One year later a draft bill was submitted at the federal level, and in 1979, West Germany created the foundation for what was to be the Bundesdatenschutzgesetz or the Federal Data Protection Act (BDSG).

Like so many things, angst about potential surveillance is rooted in Germany’s past.

In the 1980s this law expanded in response to a group of citizens who sued the government over a 160-question national census. The court ruled that the individuals would be easily identifiable by the data and recognized their right to “informational self-determination”, as Germany’s constitution calls it.  This verdict established the individual’s right to allow or block the sharing of their personal information with any public or private entity.

Like so many things, angst about potential surveillance is rooted in Germany’s past. Under the Nazis, the Gestapo (short for “secret state police”) had recourse to any and all available information in sniffing out what it considered to be crimes against the government – and without judicial review. After the war, East Germany continued and expanded such surveillance to control people it deemed enemies of the state. The infamous Ministry for State Security – or Stasi – was one of the world’s most repressive organizations. At the height of its powers, it had 170,000 officers, not including their networks of informants. Stasi files are now open to those
contained within them. A look inside reveals anything from the typical government records to sketches of children’s bedrooms provided by family members or friends.

After Germany reunified in 1990, the country preserved these files and memories, in part to ensure that the state would never have such surveillance capabilities again. But as technology became omnipresent, the public paranoia for informational self-determination shifted away from the government and toward corporations. According to a survey by Statista this year, 59 per cent of Germans trust their government. It’s the private sector they distrust.

Germans are especially suspicious of Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook. “In an ideal world, the free market would determine how these companies operate, but the past has shown us that the free market doesn’t work that way,” said Florian Glatzner, who advises theFederation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV). It’s his job to represent consumers in Germany in the fight for informational self-determination.

Most consumers, said Mr. Glatzner, know that search engines, smart-phone makers and websites collect data, but don’t understand enough about the technology to properly consent to how their personal data is used. As a result, today’s version of the BDSG is purposefully broad to cover as much as possible. Businesses operating in Germany have to ensure that data – an increasingly lucrative aspect of the tech business – is anonymized and stored in accordance with the law.

Despite the general anxiety, the German public is not exactly shunning Facebook and Google. Google has almost 92 percent of the search-engine market share in Germany. Statista reports that nearly 39 million Germans use Facebook. “It is unreasonable to not use these networks – they’re part of our social world now,” said Mr. Glatzner, adding that this makes organizations such as his own more important for the average consumer.

The BDSG is now changing again, as the laws will soon transcend borders and be replaced by a European Union regulation that takes effect in May 2018. In large measure, the EU is adopting the German, not the American, approach of guaranteeing consumers more discretion over their data. Maybe in due course it won’t be the Germans but the Americans that are the odd ones out – online and in the spa.

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