Global Observer

In Berlin, cell phone privacy woes surface

In Berlin, cell phone privacy woes surface

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BERLIN -- A German internet watchdog has uncovered police investigations involving massive amounts of private cellular phone data in the country's capital. Now legislators are pushing the city for answers.

BERLIN -- With the fall of the communist GDR and its infamous Stasi only 21 years behind it, the German capital is grappling with news that city police may have obtained and combed through millions of connections worth of cell phone data since 2009.

The German watchdog portal netzpolitik.org announced Thursday it had obtained documents proving police obtained mass amounts of cellular data following a series of car burnings in the Berlin borough of Friedrichshain.

"Berlin Police and the city's Public Attorney's Office requested and received the 'collection and transmission of all traffic and connection data' of a particular municipal district at the end of 2009," the report from netzpolitik.org said, complete with a link to the document and map of the affected area.

The news has elicited heavy criticism from members of the city's Green Party, lawyers and data privacy advocates alike, who suspect the findings confirm what they have long feared - that a controversial data retention law may be too subject to interpretation.

Details of the Berlin case were sought by netzpolitik.org after the discovery of a similar affair which had taken place in Dresden. The data retained includes information about who, when, how long and with whom a person phoned, although no actual contents of the conversation are saved, the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel reported.

The German Federal Constitutional Court ruled in March 2010 that the data retention law enabled a violation of constitutional rights, after which telecommunications companies were to longer required to retain data, the daily said. Privacy experts suspect, however, that the practice is still in place via a legal "gray zone" on the matter.

Sönke Hilbrans, Vice Head of the German Association for Data Protection, told Der Tagesspiegel that he doubts legislators intended for the mass analysis of cellular data - which can involve thousands of cell phone numbers - to be used as a standard investigative tool.

"From a technical point of view there practical objections to the investigative method," the lawyer said. "The effectiveness of cellular data analysis is typically extremely limited."

As Hilbrans pointed out, police obtained little helpful information from the data analysis they ran, Der Tagesspiegel confirmed.

"A cellular query can affect thousands of bystanders, depending on how the search is divided up," Hilbrans told the paper, adding that anyone who lives, works or moves in the area surrounding a crime scene could be subject to data collection.

"So it doesn't just feel like you could be monitored at any time. Thousands of cellular connections make up a powerful data set, meaning that the feeling isn't so far from the truth."

The Green Party convened this weekend, saying it plans to press the Berlin Senate to "explain gaps, disclose all details of what happened, and to ensure that in the future, a disproportionate amount of cellular phone data not be collected, analyzed or stored again," Der Tagesspiegel said.

Photo: Flickr/Jon Smith

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure