Cablegate: German criticisms of US data protection revealed

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Wikileaks data dump validates German privacy advocates' worst fears.

The US Ambassador to Germany scoffed at German criticisms of US data protection inadequacies, according to secret diplomatic despatches published to the internet on the weekend.

Cable 09BERLIN1167, among the first tranche in whistleblower site Wikileaks' "Cablegate” data dump, revealed that deputy chairman of Germany’s ruling coalition Gisela Piltz raised concerns that the US Government was unfit to share information with and that much of what it sought was unnecessary or a violation of Germany’s strong stance on privacy protection.

US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy said dealing with that country's junior coalition members would be
US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy said dealing with that country's junior coalition members would be "problematic" owing to their strong privacy stance. photo: US Government

The cable, written by incoming US Ambassador to Germany Phillip Murphy to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton 10 days before last year’s German elections and with the subject line: “Data privacy trumps security: Implications of a FDP victory on counterterrorism cooperation” warned that US interests in Germany could be compromised by the ascension of the centre-right Free Democratic Party.

Dealing with a coalition that included the FDP would be “problematic”, Ambassador Murphy wrote.

The party, the third biggest in the German parliament or Bundestag, was founded after WWII along liberal democratic ideals of civil and human rights. At last year’s polls it staged the best result in its 62-year history on a platform of protecting individual privacy rights.

Germany has long had staunch protections for privacy and in April its data protection commissioner exposed Google's international practice of capturing private data sent over unsecured WiFi networks, embarassing the advertising giant.

Ambassador Murphy wrote in the classified cable before last year's national elections that the “the FDP's strong views on individual liberties and personal privacy could lead to complications concerning law enforcement security cooperation and data sharing”. 

“Were the FDP to join the government, we expect they would closely scrutinise any proposals for security officials to access and/or share information concerning private persons with international partners, including” the US Government, Murphy wrote.

The FDP’s top concerns:

  • US data protection and retention policies were lax;
  • The scope of surveillance would grow unchecked;
  • US-EU data sharing arrangements were “totally unacceptable” and threatened Germany’s commercial interests;
  • Much of the information collected - especially of travellers - was “pointless” for checking crime and terrorism;
  • Unlike Germany, the US lacked a data protection commissioner to oversee how such data would be treated after collection.

Ambassador Murphy said the last point “underscores the importance of ensuring German officials receive information about [US Government] data-protection policy”.

He said a visit last year by Department of Homeland Security chief privacy officer Mary Callahan was “useful in this regard but more needs to be done to ensure German officials understand US data-protection policy”.

“The FDP's fixation on data privacy and protection issues looks to have come at the expense of the party forming responsible views on security policy,” Murphy wrote. “The FDP has been out of power for over 10 years and lack experience tackling security issues in the internet age. 

“The FDP appears not to fully grasp the transnational character of terrorism today and terrorists' increasing use of the Internet and related technology to recruit, train and organise.”

Murphy wrote that FDP parliamentarians “blasted” a law enacted last year that gave Germany's Federal Criminal Police (BKA) office new powers to use “technical surveillance measures” (ie hacking) to investigate suspected crimes and terror offences.

The former interior minister, Gerhart Baum, said the law “violated privacy rights, freedom of the press and the inviolability of private residences”, Murphy wrote.

And Piltz warned it would turn the national police service into a “super spy agency resembling the FBI”.

“Specifically, the law provides the BKA with the power to conduct remote, online investigations of the computers of terrorism and serious crime suspects,” Murphy wrote.

His concerns were ameliorated by the prospect that should the FDP gain power through a coalition with the dominant Union parties, which it did, the junior partner's influence would be diluted and that it would take a “more constructive approach” to sharing information.

And he intimated that operations on the ground would continue status quo irrespective of who controlled the Reichstag.

“Given that the FDP would be the junior partner in the coalition, we hope that CDU/CSU [governing Christian union parties] leadership would ensure that German legal frameworks are adequate and that law enforcement and security officials continue our current close cooperation and robust information sharing on operational matters,” Murphy wrote.

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