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Today, we are all Germans

I was embarrassingly proven wrong, and I’m sitting here loving every second of it. As you remember, I was on stage in Berlin a few years ago telling people I felt we had lost the war defending privacy. It now appears we may be able to hold on to a little bit of ground, at least temporarily. I sincerely apologize, for it seems as if I have indeed given up just a bit too early.

As luck would have it, I think the widely publicized notion of hackers being this straightforward about the state of affairs scared the living daylights out of people and may have actually had a significant strategic effect. And for the record I still disagree with some of the people approaching me afterwards that claimed that one could simply never say such things, whether they were true or not.

Many of you know I’m quite the skeptic when it comes to the notion of privacy. Who can expect such a thing while all our physical movements, payments as well all our spoken and written thoughts are being tracked? I’m not sure where and how I am supposed to have privacy between mandatory data-retention, license plate recognition, public transit RFID cards, biometric passports, electronic files on the development of every child until the age of 35 (!), the wholesale erosion of medical secrecy, massive growth in camera observation and a system of laws that give government broad access to just about any piece of information held on all its citizens?

But even a long-term privacy-pessimist as myself now has to recognize that in this rising sea of privacy-intrusions, the citizens of one country seem to be raising and maintaining at least some of their defenses. And while that metaphor clearly shows my national origin, it is unfortunately not my own country where people are successfully defending themselves.

The German federal constitutional court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, has nullified a state law that would have allowed broad introduction of government sanctioned spyware. And, even more importantly, in its ruling (here’s a shorter press release) the court has created a much broader fundamental constitutional protection. They have acknowledged the concept that our lives now extend into the technology we use and stated that our lives in this new space are just as worthy of constitutional protection as our lives in any of the other places where we live. In Germany, the concept of a constitutionally protected ‘most inner private sphere’ now clearly extends to our homes in the digital world.

The future of a proposed federal equivalent to this now-nullified state law is uncertain, and the wording of this new concept also sheds strong doubts on whether the proposed data-rentention laws will be ruled constitutional. (A ruling on this is still outstanding.)

It would of course have been even nicer if the Germans had actually managed to elect a government that didn’t attempt to trample their most basic rights to begin with. But then constitutions are there as a safety-net for precisely this eventuality. They are written because the framers realized that when it comes to governments, shit (such as in the form of oppressive laws) sometimes happens.

So the people of Germany seem to be successfully defending themselves against their government. What’s wrong with the rest of the world? There have been plenty efforts in many other countries to defend the notion of privacy, but the Germans have simply been provided with better and sharper tools for defending themselves. Their sharpest tool by far is this federal constitutional court. Without it, I fear Germany would have long been in the same sorry state as my own country. I hope all Germans realize that the judges and support staff that make up this court are the one single thing that stands between today’s Germany and a police state.

So what does this teach us if we don’t live in Germany? It shows that one needs a constitution that defines which core values are important and a legal system that interprets what these values mean with regard to new developments. Also, the legal system needs to allow for common laws to be challenged based on the constitution. It’s probably very hard to get such a strong constitution out of the blue. It takes some very serious accidents in your history to show what happens if the wrong people get to power.

Take my country, The Netherlands, for example. It has a constitution that, in practice, is mostly meaningless. Yes, we have a right to communications secrecy. But our constitution has a habit of saying things along the lines of “government shall not … unless warranted by law”. Most of you will recognize that the whole purpose of a constitution should not be to have some nice hollow phrases to point to, but to regulate what ordinary laws can and cannot say. Coupled with the legal impossibility of challenging laws as being unconstitutional (!), the Dutch have clearly taken a wrong turn way back in the past. Most simply put, the framers of the dutch legal system have assumed that shit would not happen. That parliament and government could never really want truly wrong things.

I congratulate the German constitutional court on taking a determined step back from the abyss. I sincerely hope it also takes the logical next step and completely and utterly destroys data retention such that it is so dead that it will never rise from its much spitted on grave. But after all the much-deserved partying, the Germans need to realize that they’re not done. They still need to eradicate the root cause of the problem. After all: when your very last defense – the constitutional court – has to save you from oppression like this, you damn well better hurry and replace the politicians that got you into this mess in the first place. Either you get rid of them, or they start the tediously slow process of eroding the power of the court. (Which accidentally is a simplification of what happened to constitutional protection in the US over the past decades.)

If the Germans don’t act to cherish and preserve this new right, it will be mostly meaningless. After all, until the broader population understands and defends what has been given to them, it is nothing but a ruling written by some older judges, acting against the elected government in an attempt to uphold higher principles. This new constitutional principle needs to be cemented into the legal practice and into the minds of the people.

Given how incredibly alone Germany seems to be in defending these principles, the defense of German freedom has long become important to non-Germans as well. At this point in time, I think it makes much more sense for me to defend the real and defended notion of privacy in Germany than fight the eternal uphill battle of trying to re-introduce this profoundly lost concept in The Netherlands. I will start donating money and helping out accordingly, and I call on anyone reading this to do the same. I’ve donated to Foebud e.V., but Stiftung Bridge and Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung appear to be equally responsible and active recipients. Check out their websites and use the comments if you feel I’ve left out worthy causes.

17 comments to Today, we are all Germans

  • As far as I understand it, no law has been nullified. They merely defined the conditions under which new methods of surveillance can be employed, that is, under conditions of capital crimes.

    This is not the first state intervention right that is “corrected” in this fashion. The thing that really seems to matter is how law enforcement will practically deal with it, how they will manage to get the proper suspicion for the desired surveillance tasks.

  • Mathias

    The law has indeed been nullified in terms of the so-called online search.

    Kulla, you should at least be able to read a German court ruling.

  • Is it wrong that they defined conditions under which it is possible to do exactly what the law implied? Or how do I understand this bit?:

    “Demnach dürfen Computer von Verdächtigen mit Spionageprogrammen nur dann ausgeforscht werden, wenn “überragend wichtige Rechtsgüter” wie Menschenleben oder der Bestand des Staates konkret gefährdet seien und auch dann nur mit Zustimmung eines Richters. Intime Daten aus dem Kernbereich privater Lebensgestaltung sollen möglichst [!] nicht erhoben und dürfen auf keinen Fall verwertet werden.”

  • Mathias

    No, they hereby defined the conditions under which it would be possible to invent a new law that could allow a “Bundestrojaner” in the future.

    The paragraphs of the law offended in this case were dead the moment the judge spoke.

  • I think the point of the judgement was that there is a constitutional right for privacy that extends to our digital life as captured in computers.

    The judges also ruled that this right is quite like your right to privacy in your own house – it may only be broken if there is imminent, high danger for human life or the constitution and the state itself, to be decided by a judge. Which makes perfect sense to me.

  • rop

    For winning more than a few random battles, one first and foremost needs the ability to distinguish between winning and losing. This is winning.

  • I have written an English summary of the most important points of the court decision. Might be helpful, as the international news coverage got many parts of it wrong.

  • Andre

    Next will be data retention. It is clear that it won’t survive the constitutional court decision given past case law.

  • Andre

    Kulla:
    ““Demnach dürfen Computer von Verdächtigen mit Spionageprogrammen nur dann ausgeforscht werden, wenn “überragend wichtige Rechtsgüter” wie Menschenleben oder der Bestand des Staates konkret gefährdet seien und auch dann nur mit Zustimmung eines Richters.”

    Also sozusagen nach der Ausrufung des Notstands.

    “Intime Daten aus dem Kernbereich privater Lebensgestaltung sollen möglichst [!] nicht erhoben und dürfen auf keinen Fall verwertet werden.””

    “möglichst” deutet auf einen Grundsatz hin. In jedem Fall darf der “kernbereich privater Lebensgestaltung” nicht das ZIEL sein. Die Verwertung vor Gericht oder für Ermittlungen ist ausgeschlossen.

    Es lässt sich natürlich nicht immer vermeiden.

    Das schwache Wort ist hier “intim”.

  • rop

    @Andre:

    > Next will be data retention. It is clear that it won’t survive the
    > constitutional court decision given past case law.

    I admit things look favourable. But it is as they say in German: “Vor Gericht und auf Hoher See ist man in Gottes Hand.” (“On the high seas and before the court, one’s fate is in Gods hand.”)

  • Things are a bit more complicated. German interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble tried one of his usual stuff with the following:
    “die Abwehr der dringenden Gefahr oder die Verhütung von Straftaten … auf andere Weise aussichtslos oder wesentlich erschwert wäre”

    This very definition was catched by th BVG as non-conform with the german constitution.
    The important thing as such was that the court defined a new what we call “Grundrecht”, a basic right. Das “Computer-Grundrecht” with a level of privacy even above them of bedrooms.

  • @Andre

    “Also sozusagen nach der Ausrufung des Notstands.”

    Ich zitier’s noch mal, weil ich das Abwiegeln echt nicht verstehe:

    “Die heimliche Infiltration eines informationstechnischen Systems, mittels derer die Nutzung des Systems überwacht und seine Speichermedien ausgelesen werden können, ist verfassungsrechtlich nur zulässig, wenn tatsächliche Anhaltspunkte einer konkreten Gefahr für ein überragend wichtiges Rechtsgut bestehen. Überragend wichtig sind Leib, Leben und Freiheit der Person oder solche Güter der Allgemeinheit, deren Bedrohung die Grundlagen oder den Bestand des Staates oder die Grundlagen der Existenz der Menschen berührt. Die Maßnahme kann schon dann gerechtfertigt sein, wenn sich noch nicht mit hinreichender Wahrscheinlichkeit feststellen lässt, dass die Gefahr in näherer Zukunft eintritt, sofern bestimmte Tatsachen auf eine im Einzelfall durch bestimmte Personen drohende Gefahr für das überragend wichtige Rechtsgut hinweisen.”

    Ich lese da: Wenn es einen Anhaltspunkt für eine Gefahr für Leib, Leben und Freiheit der Person gibt, kann die Maßnahme Anwendung finden. Das ist doch viel weiter gefaßt als der Notstand, oder?

  • that’s the tricky thing about. the question who can answer the question as such in concrete.

    what I think is, what is it that Schäuble and the flock really has in mind with their ever lasting trys to undermine german laws.
    just that the federal court stopped him once does not mean him to do on his own. means ‘stopping’.

  • > Ich lese da: Wenn es einen Anhaltspunkt für eine Gefahr für Leib,
    > Leben und Freiheit der Person gibt, kann die Maßnahme Anwendung
    > finden. Das ist doch viel weiter gefaßt als der Notstand, oder?

    Es muss eine Konkrete Gefahr vorliegen die dann gnuegend Anhaltspunkte fuer den Richter gibt um eine entsprechende Durchsuchung anzuordnen.

    Das ist durchaus ein Unterschied, die Idee war ja, so wie ich es verstanden habe, das die auf Computern gespeicherte Daten eben nicht persoenlich sind und man (also die Polizei / Staat) ganz einfach darauf zugreifen kann ohne jeglichen Grund oder Richterliche Ueberwachung.

    Das Urteil hat jetzt Grenzen aufgezeigt wie sie eben auch fuer dein Haus und Wohnung gelten und das ist durchaus ein Fortschritt im vergleich zu anderen Laendern / Gesetzen.

    Das diese Woche auch die “Datenspeicherung fuer Nummernschilder” gekippt wurde ist ein weiteres gutes Zeichen, ich habe das Gefuehl das da einige in der Regierung gerade vor Wut kochen.

  • [...] von der Entscheidung des Bundesverfassungsgerichts, die uns ein neues Grundrecht beschert hat: Today, we are all Germans.Er vergleicht die Situation mit Deutschland mit anderen Ländern: So the people of Germany seem to [...]

  • [...] systems” which was defined last Wednesday by the German Constitutional Court – Today, we’re all Germans. “It would of course have been even nicer if the Germans had actually managed to elect a [...]

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