German spying scandals return
BERLIN, June 5 (Reuters) – A spate of chilling snooping scandals involving some of their country’s biggest corporations has unsettled Germans who have not forgotten the dark days of the Cold War.
Revelations by Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s biggest telecommunications firm, that it illegally monitored phone records in 2005 have reawakened memories of communist East Germany’s Stasi secret police and even Hitler’s Gestapo.
Also recently surfaced Stasi archives material that top Left party lawmaker Gregor Gysi may have been an informer for the East German police, allegations he denies, have alarmed many.
“The sensitivity to spying is very acute in Germany and that’s down to history,” said political scientist Jochen Staadt of Berlin’s Otto-Suhr Institute, who specialises in the Stasi.
The string of incidents has even hardened criticism of plans to loosen privacy laws to help police fight terrorism and crime.
“The German fear, the deep-seated mistrust of people towards those in power and institutions is all too understandable given the scale of Telekomgate,” wrote Der Spiegel weekly, which broke the story last week and splashed “Big Brother” on its cover.
The Telekom scandal, based on a report that the firm had spied on journalists and directors to find out who was leaking information to the press, is the dominant case but others have also made headlines.
Discount retailer Lidl was investigated after accusations it was monitoring staff activity — from toilet breaks to suspected love affairs. Rail operator Deutsche Bahn this week denied illegal snooping despite using the same firm as Telekom.
These incidents may be seen as ordinary business practice in some countries. But not in Germany.
Journalists, angry about several cases of the BND foreign intelligence service monitoring reporters’ correspondence in the last few years, complain about an infringement of rights.
“These cases have led to a general atmosphere of mistrust which is very damaging,” Hendrik Zoerner of the German Association of Journalists told Reuters.
“We view it all as an attack on press freedom,” he said.
Experts say sophisticated modern methods — involving digital data, computers and mobile phones — are a far cry from the days of the Stasi who used steaming devices to open envelopes as well as magnetic microphones and typewriters.
“But there are similarities. There is the same lack of scruples over looking into peoples’ lives — the possibility of obtaining and using the information on people,” said Staadt.
The Stasi ran a notoriously effective network of domestic and foreign agents to quash dissent and guard the Berlin Wall against would-be escapees. East Germany even planted a mole in the West German chancellor’s office.
A Teutonic tradition of keeping meticulous records — the Stasi archive’s papers would stretch 180 km if lined up — makes available a pool of material which can make snooping more fruitful than in other countries, said Staadt.
The size of the Stasi has also prompted speculation that Germany was awash with unemployed spooks keen to use their skills after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
At least 95,000 people in a population of 17 million worked full time for the Stasi and another 150,000 or so were “informal employees” who spied on friends, neighbours and colleagues.
But experts say most Stasi workers changed profession and the Federal Association for German Detectives insists none of its members are ex-Stasi.