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Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Germany. Show all posts

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Opting out of Street View....

Nearly 250,000 Germans have 'opted out' of having their homes visible when Google's Street View comes online, though Andreas Türk, Product Manager for Street View in Germany, has admitted that some of those homes will still be visible when the service comes online, which will be some time in the near future, as the process is complex and not all instructions were clear. His blog here provides the explanations.

It's an interesting figure - is 250,000 (or, to be more precise, 244,237) a large number? As Andreas Türk says, it amounts to 2.89% of those who could have objected, and the argument can be made both ways. Google might argue that it means that the vast, vast majority don't object to Street View, so their service has some kind of overall 'acceptance' or even 'support' by the populace. Privacy advocates might say the converse - in absolute terms, 250,000 is a LOT of people. If you had 250,000 people marching on the streets with banners saying 'NO TO STREET VIEW' it would make headline news, certainly in Germany, and probably throughout Europe.

Both sides have a point: 2.89% isn't a very large proportion, but 250,000 is a lot of people, and when you look closer at the process I suspect that the privacy advocates have a stronger position. Given that the opt-out required an active process (and Google say that 2/3 of those who objected used their own online tool to do so) it does suggest that quite a lot of people care about this. If the reverse system had been in place - and you had to actively choose to HAVE your home 'unblurred' on Street View, what kind of figures would you get? Would more than 250,000 have gone through a process to make their houses visible? I doubt it....

...and what of the rest of us? Germans got a choice because their government made a point about it, and demanded that Google give them the choice before the service went active. As the BBC reports, other governments have made other kinds of objections, but none have been given the choice that the Germans have had. As I've blogged before, Germany has a pretty active privacy lobby, so it's not surprising that they are the country that has taken this step - what would the result have been if the option had been given in the UK? Or the US? Probably not as dramatic as the German result - which makes me wonder whether Google has missed a trick by not providing the option elsewhere. If they did so, and an even tinier fraction than the 2.9% in privacy-aware Germany objected, they might be able to be even bolder about proclaiming that people love Street View.....

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The good, the bad and the ugly side of privacy in Germany

Privacy advocates in the UK sometimes look across at Germany in wistful admiration - but is the story quite as rosy for privacy in Germany as it sometimes appears? Perhaps not, for though one recent event has shown Germany in its best light, as a beacon for privacy rights across Europe, another has demonstrated the opposite. Even Germany has an ugly side to how it deals with privacy.

First for the good. As reported widely (and in this case in out-law.com), this last week Germany's highest court has suspended that country's implementation of the EU Data Retention Directive by ruling that it violates citizens' rights to privacy. This suspension comes after a class action suit brought by 35,000 German citizens - a level of citizen activity that would be close to miraculous in the UK, particularly for as issue such as privacy. The law by which the German government implemented the Data Retention Directive has been found unconstitutional, failing to include enough safeguards for the privacy of the individuals that is required under Germany's constitution. A victory for privacy, albeit neither a complete nor a permanent one, since the court did not say that it would be impossible to implement the Data Retention Directive in a constitutionally acceptable way, just that this particular implementation was unconstitutional. Nonetheless, it is something about which German privacy advocates will feel justifiably proud - and many in other countries in Europe will hope signals changes elsewhere. It is hard to imagine, however, that it will be possible to achieve a similar result in the UK.

Then for the bad - or at least the ugly. A story reported far less widely, at least in the UK, is emerging concerning the German government's use of data concerning the use by German citizens of Swiss banks for the purposes of tax evasion. This data has been acquired through various methods, most of which would probably be considered illegal - certainly from the perspective of the Swiss banks. Reuters has reported on the subject - it is a somewhat complex story, but the essence of it is that private data, detailing the banking activities of German citizens, has been offered for sale to a number of German states. Some of that data may have come from insider whistle-blowers, but some has also come from hackers - and earlier this year the German Federal Government gave states the go-ahead to buy the data if they want, whether or not the data has been obtained illegally. At least one state, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, has bought the data, and is using it to flush out tax evaders. As Reuters reports, nearly 6,000 German tax evaders have 'owned up' to the tax evasion as a result of this evidence - and more could still be about to come out of the woodwork. As DSTG head Dieter Ondracek said, "If we get a signal from the politicians that it'll only be possible for people to come clean this year, then we could have another 5,000 doing so with corresponding additional revenues," Ondracek told Reuters. "Then a billion euros could be possible."

This is not the first time that Germany has bought illegally acquired private data. Two years ago, something similar happened with bank data from Lichtenstein, effectively forcing the principality to relax its previously stringent bank secrecy laws. The current affairs over Swiss banking data might have a somewhat similar effect over the banking rules in Switzerland, though that of course could be a long way away - though already the Swiss have complied with a US request over tax evasion, and as reported in Reuters, Switzerland's justice minister questioned on Sunday whether tax evasion should continue to be treated as a misdemeanour rather than a crime.

It is hard, of course, to generate much sympathy for people evading tax through the use of bank accounts in Switzerland - but that should not blind us to the significance of the events that are taking place. It's not so much the nature of the data that's significant, but the way in which is has been acquired. Getting data through the use of official requests from one government to another, as in the case of the US, is one matter, but paying money for data acquired illegally, and quite likely through hacking, is quite another, and sets a very uncomfortable precedent. Moreover, it provides a new and potentially large incentive to hackers to go after this kind of data. And if this kind of data, why not other data? Aside from the obvious problems of Germany's potential obligations as a signatory of the Cybercrime Convention, there is an awkward parallel here with another recent event - the enormously publicised hacking of the gmail accounts of Chinese dissident groups. The Chinese government of course vigorously denies any involvement in the hack, but if it were to be offered data on illegal groups acquired by hacking, how different would it be for the Chinese government to buy it from the German government's buying of this Swiss banking data?

From the perspectives of the two governments, they're just seeking to root out people involved in illegal activities - for the Germans, tax evaders, for the Chinese, people involved in subversive (and illegal) activities. And in both cases, the fact that it might be possible to make money from selling this kind of data cannot help but be an incentive to try to acquire it. People in the West may have much more sympathy for Chinese dissidents than they do for German tax-evaders, but in some ways the principles are very much the same. Do we really want to set that kind of precedent?