A constitution worth protecting

Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 7:19 | Posted in civil rights, Germany, internet, privacy | Leave a comment
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The German public broadcaster Südwestrundfunk say (via StoiBär and Heise online) they are in possession of a 14 page German security service memo compiled to evaluate the judicial problems faced by the security service in their investigation leading to arrest of three suspected terrorists known as the “Sauerlandgruppe” four months ago. According to the memo, checks and balances in German legislation made the success of their investigation depend on info received from foreign security and intelligence services. Not surprisingly, the security service now want some of those legislative and constitutional checks removed.

Among the recommendations of the memo is to make audio and video surveillance of suspects’ flats easier. They also want operative real time access to cell phone position data. Perhaps the most controversial proposition suggests that visitors to Internet coffee shops would be obliged to present a paper copy of their photo ID combined to a recognizable user ID during their stay in the web café.

Disregarding for a moment the petty little detail that this kind of intrusions into privacy could be regarded as unconstitutional, I wonder what practical consequences these suggestions might have if approved. If I were a terrorist or even a legitimate whistleblower interested in anonymity, I would not use a cell phone or a web café for my communications as it is. Neither would I post sensitive anonymous messages in the Internet using my domestic web connection.

After all, there are practically an unlimited number open wifi networks allover for me to access. I would have no problem to create a clean partition in my laptop hard drive to be used only for that kind of messages through wireless networks. So even if the security services managed to plant a governmental trojan onto my hard drive they would have hard time connecting any sensitive info I posted with my person.

If the recommendations of the memo were indeed approved and those constitutional checks and balances were eased, just imagine who would be more likely to take protective measures for their communications: a member of a terrorist organization or an innocent whistleblower? The problem is that those checks and balances were explicitly supposed to protect the privacy of the wistleblower. Or that is at least what I thought.

On a more philosophical point, if protecting a constitution requires that constitutional rights of citizens must be essentially limited, is the constitution itself worth protecting? The secret services are after all supposed not only to protect the constitution but also the values behind it. As Kai put it a couple of months ago:

I do not like it. I still want to keep my door closed when I go to the toilet. You see, I expect anonymity – even if you all know what I am doing in there. And I would like things to continue that way. So no thank you, Mr. Kerr, I will not leave my anonymity so you can control my privacy.

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