Security Vs. Personal Privacy Debate Sparked by Counter-Terror Measures in Germany, France

By James Carstensen | November 3, 2017 | 12:15am EDT
Headquarters of the federal Interior Ministry in Berlin. (Photo: Matti Blume/Wikimedia Commons)

Berlin ( – As European governments grapple with how to craft anti-terror laws that are effective without threatening personal freedoms, a German minister is calling for privacy laws to be updated to reflect today’s challenges.

In France, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron signed into law controversial legislation granting police permanent power to close places of worship and perform on-the-spot identity checks.

The legislation, following a state of emergency imposed after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, have prompted concerns about civil liberties and the potential targeting of minorities, particularly Muslims.

Responding to criticism, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said it was clear to all that France needs “a fair balance between security and freedom, and I believe this text meets this need.”

Similar debates have arisen in Germany, where laws were tightened after the refugee crisis began in 2015 and a wave of terror attacks shook the country.

Collomb’s German counterpart, Thomas de Maiziere, called this week for strict privacy laws to be revised to reflect new needs in an age of terrorism and cybercrime.

De Maiziere claims that expanding the powers of security authorities would better bring them in line with the digital age.

“We don’t need the same old debates of the 80s and 90s,” he said, referring to issues raised about privacy following the collapse of the police state in East Germany.

Proposed changes include additional posts for security authorities, increasing video surveillance of high priority suspects and, most controversially, enabling Germany’s BfV domestic security agency to take over some constitutional security duties currently handled by authorities in the individual states.

De Maiziere said the arrest of a 19-year-old Syrian man in the northern city of Schwerin, accused of planning a “serious terror attack,” showed the benefit of authorities being able to gather enough evidence before public safety was endangered.

“We live in a digital world,” Patrick Sensburg, a legal and security expert for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) told business daily Handelsblatt. “It can’t be that criminals operate in World 4.0 and police are still investigating in World 1.0.”

According to a report this week by Welt am Sonntag, terrorism-related cases in Germany have jumped almost four-fold compared to last year. Federal prosecutors have opened over 900 cases so far, compared to around 250 last year and 80 cases in German courts in 2013.

Cases can include charges of links to an international terrorist group such as ISIS, even if no plans to carry out attacks in Germany were involved.

Security policy is expected to be a focal point in ongoing talks as four German parties seek to form a coalition government.

Merkel’s CDU and its sister party, the CSU, emphasize security, but the other two potential coalition partners, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens, prioritize protecting individual privacy.

“Instead of mass monitoring of all citizens, we ultimately need efficient instruments and a targeted approach to concrete dangers,” Handelsblatt quoted Green lawmaker Konstantin von Notz as saying.

Germans are sensitive about surveillance, given the lessons of the Nazi and communist eras. The national constitution restricts surveillance laws and emphasizes privacy protections.

Despite this, the government last June added new public surveillance laws to the Criminal Code, enabling a major increase to the number of security cameras installed across cities.

In a related move, the federal government passed legislation in May making it easier to deport failed asylum seekers, including increased detention periods of up to 10 days.

Merkel, after prolonged resistance to the idea, even agreed to set an “upper limit” on refugee admission numbers, a concept opposed by the FDP and the Greens.

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