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Germany: Businesses Refuse To Cooperate With Checks On Personnel Data

  • Roland Eggleston

Authorities in Germany say only about 5 percent of businesses and institutions in the country released personnel files on their employees as part of the war on terrorism. Most companies cited Germany's strict privacy laws for their refusal to cooperate. Some Islamic organizations also went to court to stop the investigations.

Munich, 21 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Requests for personal data on employees were sent to more than 4,000 German businesses, universities, and scientific research organizations in October and November of last year.

The requests were in response to the news that several of the 11 September terrorists had lived and studied in Germany for years without arousing suspicion. Police and security authorities began checking the backgrounds of thousands of young men, particularly from the Arab and Islamic worlds, who were living in Germany and who might have had contact with the terrorists or extremist organizations.

But a spokesman for the Federal Criminal Office in Wiesbaden says investigators were "deeply disappointed" that only 212 of the 4,000 businesses and companies cooperated with the request. Several large German firms, such as Lufthansa or the Siemens electrical concern, have refused enquiries from the German media about their level of cooperation.

Some of the institutions expressed concerned about lawsuits if they violated Germany's stringent privacy laws. A 1990 law prevents any institution from disclosing personal information about its employees without the subject's permission.

The requests sparked a debate in Germany on whether the privacy laws should be temporarily relaxed for the war on terrorism. Others argued that, despite the brutal attacks in Washington and New York, data-protection laws had to be maintained.

Dieter Diacont, the security chief for the Association of German Electric Works, said he advised member companies to cooperate and turn over personnel files. A spokeswoman for the association, Christine Helm, said it is important to remember that some of the 11 September hijackers found safe havens in Germany while preparing their plans: "The fact is that some of those who organized the terror attacks had lived in Germany for several years. Germans should know whether other terrorists are hiding in our country.... But at the same time, they want to be sure that civil rights are being respected."

According to German media reports, most of the 4,000 companies asked to turn over their files were so-called "strategic" industries. They included airlines, electronic companies, pharmaceutical makers, and those engaged in scientific research. Universities were also asked to provide files on students who met the profile, particularly those studying science or engineering.

In 16 cases, Muslim organizations who opposed the checks on personal data went to court in an effort to deny the Federal Criminal Office access to files. Initially, the authorities suffered a series of defeats. On 15 January, a local court in Berlin ruled that computer profiling was a violation of state privacy laws. There was a similar decision a month later in the state of Hesse. In North Rhine-Westfalia, a court allowed the computer profiling of foreign students, but not of Germans. Some of these initial rulings were reversed on appeal.

The Federal Criminal Office says security forces have investigated about 10,000 Muslims in Germany. Michael Gellenbeck, chief of counterterrorism in the state of Brandenburg, said authorities in Brandenburg started with a list of 27,000 names. Closer investigation reduced this to 188 people, who were investigated more thoroughly. Gellenbeck would not discuss the outcome but said there have been no arrests in his state.

Germany has conducted several roundups of possible terrorist supporters this year, but in most cases the suspects have been released for lack of evidence.

Checking possible suspects against a personality profile is not a new technique in Germany. Police used it in the 1970s to hunt down supporters of the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group that murdered several prominent law officers and businessmen. Such methods sparked a backlash, which led to the introduction of the country's strict data-protection laws.