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In Germany, widespread spying is back, this time by corporations

Hundreds of thousands of employees have had their cellphone, e-mail and computer records secretly searched. Companies say they did it to expose misconduct.

May 23, 2009|Henry Chu

BERLIN — Growing up in West Germany, Lothar Schroeder never knew that terrible sense of violation suffered by people in the communist East at the hands of the secret police who tailed them, bugged their homes and recruited neighbors and even family members to snitch on them.

Now he knows.

But it's not a totalitarian state doing the snooping this time; it's some of the country's largest corporations -- big names in telecommunications, transportation and retail.

Last year, authorities informed Schroeder that Deutsche Telekom had secretly combed through his cellphone records, apparently to root out the source of leaks to the news media. Schroeder, a union representative on the company's board of supervisors, was stunned.

"I never could believe that Deutsche Telekom would use their data in this way, never," he said, adding ruefully, "Perhaps I'm a little bit naive."

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany is being rocked by a string of spying scandals that have staggered residents with their scale and brought back painful memories of the prying eyes of Big Brother during the Cold War.

The firms have admitted spying on hundreds of thousands of employees, including monitoring their e-mails and installing hidden cameras to see how many bathroom breaks they took or whether co-workers were falling in love.

The breaches of privacy have claimed the jobs of two top executives and triggered a parliamentary investigation. Lawmakers are also discussing a revamp of Germany's nebulous and somewhat outmoded rules on data protection, to clarify what kind of prying is allowed and under what conditions.

The most shocking scandal so far involves the state-owned railway firm, Deutsche Bahn, the country's biggest employer.

In January, after an expose by a newsmagazine, the company was forced to acknowledge that it had spied on 173,000 employees -- nearly three-quarters of its workforce.

In 2002 and 2003, a security firm hired by Deutsche Bahn sifted through workers' e-mails and, in some cases, their computer hard drives for data, including addresses, phone numbers and banking information.

The company said the examination was part of a legitimate internal campaign to sniff out possible signs of corruption, such as covert links between employees and suppliers.

Yet out of the review of tens of thousands of workers, only about 100 instances of possible impropriety reportedly turned up, a dismal batting record that Peter Schaar, Germany's commissioner for data protection, finds deeply disturbing.

"In principle, of course, enterprises have an obligation to prevent and fight against corruption," Schaar said in a telephone interview from his office in Bonn. "But in the Deutsche Bahn case, they went beyond the limits. . . . The question from my side is, is it proportional to carry out a screening of so huge" a scope?

That question is freighted with especially heavy baggage in Germany, a country haunted by a shameful past of mass surveillance, from the brutal excesses of the Nazi era to the dark days of division between East and West, when the East German secret police, the Stasi, ruthlessly invaded every corner of people's lives.

As a result, Germans jealously guard their privacy -- a fact Google found out the hard way. When the company dispatched cars equipped with cameras to cities to snap ground-level photos for its Street View software program, complaints flooded in to the authorities. More than a dozen states in Germany have demanded that Google stop its photographing unless it deletes images of people's faces, car license plates and other sensitive material from its central database. The matter has not been resolved.

Germans who thought spying a thing of the past have been dismayed by what they see as Deutsche Bahn's equivocal response to the crisis over corporate surveillance, despite its apology to affected employees. Executives initially said that the company had checked up on only about 1,000 of its senior staff members and that security agents had looked only at e-mails.

A spokesman for Deutsche Bahn declined to comment for this article. The company is preparing a response to a criminal complaint filed by an employee over the spying, after which prosecutors will decide whether the evidence warrants investigation.

Proving criminal wrongdoing could be difficult.

"We can't go and put the Bahn in jail. We have to find the actual person who [ordered] this," said Michael Grunwald, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office in Berlin. "That's the problem in cases where banks and big firms are involved. Who was the one who knew everything and made the decision?"

Some punishment, though not judicial, has been meted out. At the end of March, under growing pressure, the company's beleaguered chief executive, Hartmut Mehdorn, was forced to step down.

A week later, the discount supermarket chain Lidl also fired a high-ranking executive because of its own privacy violation debacle.

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