The Judicial Art of Living in the German Surveillance Society: German Constitutional Court Declares Data Retention as Unconstitutional

The German Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) has declared the retention of telecommunication connection data by service providers and the access of law enforcement to these data as unconstitutional. It said in its judgment from March 2nd, 2010 that data retention is not proportionatley adequate and violates article 10, paragraph 1 of the German Basic Law.

Data retention was implemented in Germany (and other European countries) after the European Commission passed the Data Retention Directive (2006/24/EC) on March 15, 2006, which requires all member states to pass laws that guarantee that information and communication service providers store source, destination, and other data on a communication for at least 6 months. The data that needs to be stored includes:
“(a) data necessary to trace and identify the source of a communication (…)
(b) data necessary to identify the destination of a communication (…)
(c) data necessary to identify the date, time and duration of a communication (…)
(d) data necessary to identify the type of communication (…)
(e) data necessary to identify users’ communication equipment or what purports to be their equipment
(f) data necessary to identify the location of mobile communication equipment“ (European Data Retention Directive, Article 5).
“Member States shall ensure that the categories of data specified in Article 5 are retained for periods of not less than six months and not more than two years from the date of the communication“ (European Data Retention Directive, Article 6).

The German Federal Constitutional Court considers the following articles of German jurisdiction as unconstitutional:
* §113a (1) TKG (telecommunication act, Telekommunikationsgesetz): “Providers of publicly accessible telecommunication services are obliged according to paragraphs 2-5 to store connection data that are produced or processed in the usage of its service for six months nationally or in another member state of the European Union” („Wer öffentlich zugängliche Telekommunikationsdienste für Endnutzer erbringt, ist verpflichtet, von ihm bei der Nutzung seines Dienstes erzeugte oder verarbeitete Verkehrsdaten nach Maßgabe der Absätze 2 bis 5 sechs Monate im Inland oder in einem anderen Mitgliedstaat der Europäischen Union zu speichern“).
* §113b TKG says that telecommunication service providers are allowed to provide these connection data to law enforcement agencies, German secret services, and offices for the protection of the constitution if in the specific case an investigation is court-ordered.
* § 100g SPO (code of criminal procedure, Strafprozessordnung) says that if someone has committed a crime, tries to commit a crime, or prepares to commit a crime, especially severe crimes according to § 100a SPO, “connection data can be investigated, also without knowledge of the person concerned, insofar as this is necessary for the investigation of the statement of affairs or of the whereabouts of the defendant“ („so dürfen auch ohne Wissen des Betroffenen Verkehrsdaten (§ 96 Abs. 1, § 113a des Telekommunikationsgesetzes) erhoben werden, soweit dies für die Erforschung des Sachverhalts oder die Ermittlung des Aufenthaltsortes des Beschuldigten erforderlich ist“).

These articles in the view of the German Federal Constitutional Court violate §10 (1) of the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz), which protects the privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications: “The privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications shall be inviolable“ („Das Briefgeheimnis sowie das Post- und Fernmeldegeheimnis sind unverletzlich“).

This decision is in my view important in several respects:

* It shows that putting all citizens under general suspicion of being criminals or terrorists or of potentially planning to be criminals or terrorists and as a result storing data on their communicative connections may not be compatible with basic human rights.

* It shows the importance of constitutional laws and human rights in circumventing the rise of totalitarian surveillance societies.

* It puts an interesting perspective on the relationship of national and international jurisdiction: Directives of the European Commission are obligatory for all member states and therefore result in the creation or amendment of certain laws and paragraphs in all states. In this case international law shapes national law. But after the decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, it is likely that the Data Retention Directive will be reconsidered at the European level, which may result in its amendment or abolishment. This shows that important national court decisions have the power to shape international laws.

The President of the German Federal Constitutional Court, Hans-Jürgen Papier, commented in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung: “The Federal Constitutional Court has found that the prohibition of total surveillance is part of Germany’s constitution and its principle must not be negated by European legislation“ („Das Bundesverfassungsgericht hat festgestellt, dass das Verbot einer Totalüberwachung zur Identität der Verfassung Deutschlands gehört und auch von der europäischen Gesetzgebung nicht im Grundsatz negiert werden darf“, Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 6+7, 2010, page 6, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/1/505205/text/).

The German Federal Constitutional Court has expressed concerns about total surveillance in its decision. It argues that data retention allows creating personal profiles (interests, weaknesses, preferences, political and other memberships). This may cause feelings of being under surveillance and under constant threat. “Even although storage does not extend to communication contents, these data allow to draw conclusions that reach into the private sphere. Addressees, dates, time, and place of telephone conversations allow, if they are observed for a longer duration, in their combination detailed information about societal or political affiliations as well as personal preferences, affinities, and weaknesses. Depending on the usage of telecommunications, such a storage can enable the creation of significant personal profiles or profiles of movements of practically every citizen. Also the risk increases that citizens are put under further investigations without giving reasons for this themselves. Furthermore potential abuses connected with such data collections aggravate their mental stress effects. Particularly as storage and data use is not noticed, the storage of telecommunication connection data for no reason is suited to cause a diffusely threatening feeling of being under observation that can diminish an unprejudiced perception of one’s basic rights in many areas“ („Auch wenn sich die Speicherung nicht auf die Kommunikationsinhalte erstreckt, lassen sich aus diesen Daten bis in die Intimsphäre hineinreichende inhaltliche Rückschlüsse ziehen. Adressaten, Daten, Uhrzeit und Ort von Telefongesprächen erlauben, wenn sie über einen längeren Zeitraum beobachtet werden, in ihrer Kombination detaillierte Aussagen zu gesellschaftlichen oder politischen Zugehörigkeiten sowie persönlichen Vorlieben, Neigungen und Schwächen. Je nach Nutzung der Telekommunikation kann eine solche Speicherung die Erstellung aussagekräftiger Persönlichkeits und Bewegungsprofile praktisch jeden Bürgers ermöglichen. Auch steigt das Risiko von Bürgern, weiteren Ermittlungen ausgesetzt zu werden, ohne selbst hierzu Anlass gegeben zu haben. Darüber hinaus verschärfen die Missbrauchsmöglichkeiten, die mit einer solchen Datensammlung verbunden sind, deren belastende Wirkung. Zumal die Speicherung und Datenverwendung nicht bemerkt werden, ist die anlasslose Speicherung von Telekommunikationsverkehrsdaten geeignet, ein diffus bedrohliches Gefühl des Beobachtetseins hervorzurufen, das eine unbefangene Wahrnehmung der
Grundrechte in vielen Bereichen beeinträchtigen kann“, decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, March 2, 2010, http://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/pressemitteilungen/bvg10-011).

The German Federal Constitutional Court’s decision gives hope that the emergence of a total European surveillance society can be circumvented.

See also connected to this topic:
Fuchs, Christian. 2009. Social Networking Sites and the Surveillance Society. A Critical Case Study of the Usage of studiVZ, Facebook, and MySpace by Students in Salzburg in the Context of Electronic Surveillance. Salzburg/Vienna: Research Group UTI. ISBN 978-3-200-01428-2.
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