Germans are paranoid that the US is spying on their data

There are ears everywhere.
There are ears everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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Germany and the United States have enjoyed a special relationship ever since World War II. But today, the strength of that relationship is being tested by differences over personal privacy rights: Germans deeply distrust how the US handles digital data.

When asked in 2013 whether they thought the US government respects its citizens’ personal freedom, 81% of Germans said yes. But in 2014, after the Snowden revelations made clear the extent of US National Security Agency (NSA) spying, that number dropped to 58%.

“There’s a historical context for Germans’ sacrosanct view of privacy, because this country had the Nazi dictatorship and then the East German government with the Stasi,” Sudha David-Wilp, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, tells Quartz from Berlin. “The Snowden revelations created mistrust: Is America really a benign power?”

The idea of personal data privacy is deeply ingrained in German culture. Germans even have a word for it: Datensparsamkeit, the principle of only collecting the bare minimum of data necessary.

“Anonymity is part of our idea of freedom,” Kai Biermann, a technology journalist for Zeit Online, the web version of national weekly newspaper Die Zeit, tells Quartz. Datensparsamkeit is written into Germany’s 2003 Federal Data Protection Act (English version here).

In June 2014, the German Bundestag, or national parliament, canceled its internet-service contract with US telecom Verizon, opting to entrust its data to German company Deutsche Telekom, instead. The alleged tapping of Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone in Dec. 2013, has led the German chancellor to compare the NSA to the East German secret police, and German citizens remain outraged at the NSA’s actions in their country—just yesterday, Apr. 23, national news magazine Der Spiegel revealed (link in German) that the agency had monitored Western European businesses for more than a year.

The German state department warns on its travel website that when you enter the United States, laptops or other electronic storage media may be searched by the US border authorities. At SXSW in Austin, Texas, this year, a Berlin-based attendee told me that he had brought a burner laptop and smartphone to Austin because he didn’t trust the US with his data. At first I thought he was being unusually paranoid. Then I asked a number of tech-savvy Germans about this and heard the same thing.

“I have many friends working with information technology who refuse to travel to USA because of the border-crossing-laws,” Markus Beckdahl of the blog NetzPolitik tells Quartz. “I wouldn’t bring my used devices and would clean all my software to not bring any private communication and passwords.”

“I would only take blank gadgets with me with clean hard drives [to the US],” says Biermann. “Many people on the streets are scared by the US. They fear not only the NSA but also the dominance of enterprises like Google and Facebook.”

“It is common now to put a sticker over your laptop camera,” he adds. “I see it a lot here. There is a constant fear of being spied by your own devices.” And it’s not just the people on the street. In 2013 and 2014, the German ministry for family, seniors, women and children actually distributed free webcam-covering stickers to inhibit surveillance.