The BigBrotherAward 2012 in the category “Government and Administration” goes to the Saxon Minister of the Interior, Mr. Markus Ulbig, for 28 mobile phone cell queries in the area of Dresden.
The original events leading to this prize date back more than a year, and had we known at the time, the beautiful little statue would have been in Dresden for a year now. But the scandal from February 2011 started trickling through to the public only last summer.
But let us start at the beginning: On 19 February 2011, 20,000 people demonstrated in Dresden against the annual Nazi parade. Our laureate’s police started investigating some of these demonstrators for 23 criminal offences within a known timeframe in 14 exactly known locations.
Encouraged by the police and the Saxon’s Criminal Police Office (Landeskriminalamt), the prosecution authority in Dresden submitted a request for cell phone connection data to the local court. What followed was a veritable data landslide. On behalf of the Criminal Police Office, cell data for three locations in the Dresden area was requested for a timeframe of several hours. Additionally, connection data for a 12-hour timeframe was requested for the entire southern city centre, where the demonstration had taken place, and for the vicinity of a building housing a youth convention centre, party offices and lawyers’ offices for a full 48 hours. Shortly afterwards the mobile phone service providers transferred a staggering 1,000,702 records for 323,503 subscribers to the investigating authorities.
This wasn’t kept under cover for long: as early as summer 2011, data from these requests surfaced in inappropriate places – investigations for which a phone cell query would certainly have been denied. The investigated persons were surprised to read that they had made a phone call during the demonstration, at a given place and time. This raised some questions.
Scrambling for answers, the state government initially only admitted to having obtained 460 records, but by July 2011 40,732 subscribers had been identified, and by the end of the year that number had risen to 55,000. At the same time the acknowledged number of connection records rose steadily and on 23 November 2011 reached 1,067,433.
The large majority of these records were collected on 19 February 2011 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., in an area with several hundred thousands of residents, some 20,000 protesters according to police estimates, and 6,642 police officers. This is what people call a data tsunami, and it has later been called a “Saxon Fukushima”.
So what was it all for? Only a tiny fraction of the records had been requested to assist in criminal investigations. The major part was intended to be used for investigations against suspected members of what was probably a small suspected criminal organisation. What is the point of attempting to find a group of maybe one or two dozen people in a database of more than a million records? Apparently the Saxon police, headed by the laureate, Interior Minister Markus Ulbig, had the ambition to search for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Unfortunately, Mr. Ulbig, this is not a haystack which your officers are searching, but private communications of tens of thousands of citizens, which enjoy special legal protections. Most of these citizens were not in the city centre of Dresden just for fun, but because they live and work there. What makes this matter particularly juicy is that there were also tens of thousands exercising their constitutional right to freedom of assembly, in order to give publicity to an important social matter and voice their disgust over Nazis running wild.
In passing, the laureate’s Saxon police obtained mobile phone connection data for an entire large demonstration, with which they can now determine: who was there? For how long? Who called whom? What were that movements of individual groups?
What the Saxon police achieved with these phone cell queries amounts to an “impromptu data retention”. Didn’t the Federal Constitutional Court reject Germany’s data retention law just one year earlier?
The Saxon data protection commissioner – the state’s voice of reason, in a way – had to assert, rather shocked, that nobody seemed to have asked questions about the measure’s proportionality.
Our laureate is no security apparatchik, but an administrative civil servant. On the Ministry’s website he prides himself on his local origins, and on having been mayor of a district town: “His ear close to the local people’s hearts”. But unfortunately he has shown a lack of sound footing, or sense of proportion, in his tenacious defence of his subordinates’ actions. His behaviour exposed Saxony to an undignified debate, which further revealed that there are accomplices in this data madness. The laureate absolved his officials of all culpability on the grounds that the phone cell queries had been initiated by prosecutors and ordered by judges. The prosecutors and judges to whom the blame had been shifted declared that they saw no need to answer to some data protection activists’ criticisms. The buck kept being passed around – the data records are still not deleted.
We must also hold against our laureate that he and his accomplices have not shown any sign of regret in the past 14 months. Phone owners are still being identified, while the intention is that most affected people will never know that they were devoured by the big investigator’s suction device.
Congratulations, Minister Markus Ulbig!