German Big Brother Is Curious

So let me ask, dear reader: What’s your highest level of education attained? What sort of dwelling do you live in? What’s your yearly income?

Most likely you’re not going to answer, and I understand that. (But for those of you with a burning desire to share, there’s always our Facebook fanpage for commentary and discussion – stick that info right on our wall!) With all respect, I’m not even really interested. But many of those among you who are German citizens will soon have to answer such questions in the upcoming Volkszählung or census.

Es ist Volkszählung – und keinen interessiert’s. Liegt es an der “Generation Facebook? Berlin-Kommentar: http://bit.ly/lraaOD #zensus2011less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


That’s the taz’s Rolf Lautenschläger who rings the bell loudly to remind his fellow citizens of their upcoming data-provision duties in his editorial We are glassy.

But check out his first sentence (it’s also in the tweet): “There’s a census – and no one is interested.” What – Germans are refusing to obey and fill in the forms? That’s rather hard to believe, especially when you consider that this is the first census in the Federal Republic since 1987, meaning among other things that the whole added territory and inhabitants of the former East Germany have still not yet been properly tabulated! (What’s more, not everyone has to participate in this year’s census, unlike e.g. American practice – it’s property-owners and residents of community-owned property only.)

In fact, there were apparently protests and non-cooperation even against that 1987 census, according to Lautenschläger, but that’s reasonable if you stop a bit and think about it. It’s that infamous bit of German history, of say about 70 years ago – not to mention a feature of everyday East German life called the Stasi – that can understandably raise people’s hackles about the government getting its Leviathan hands on too much private information.

In a way, the reluctance people are already showing to cooperate with this 2011 census is related to that. You may wonder, Lautenschläger writes, why anyone can have objections considering how keen people are to neglect their privacy on such Internet mainstays as Facebook, LinkedIn, and their ilk. (That notion is the inspiration for his piece’s title: “We are glassy,” i.e. it’s easy to see through us to find out what you want.)

But the point is really the opposite. Leave Facebook, etc. to the side – there, we take on voluntarily the privacy risks that we want and that we (think that) we understand. On the other hand, Sony recently perpetrated only the latest in a series of catastrophic breaches of what were supposed to be secured personal data, and there have been some similar home-grown German catastrophes as well (e.g. with Lidl, a supermarket chain, and Deutsche Bahn, where management misused personal data in its fight with unions). Apparently then, Germans-in-the-know are hardly ready to put their confidence in their government’s data-protection abilities. What’s more, they’re likely correct in their suspicions – the former East Germany be damned (and uncounted)!

UPDATE: And you thought I was just being cynical! Check this, again from Die Tageszeitung although not from our friend Herr Lautenschläger:

Der Staat betont, beim #Zensus11 seien Daten bestens geschützt. Online ist nun die erste Sicherheitslücke aufgetaucht http://bit.ly/lWKLcPless than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply


Translated: “The State emphasizes that Census 2011 data is optimally protected. [However] on-line the first security-holes have appeared,” as freelance (white-hat) experts have gotten to work putting the data defenses to the test. A fake census input-form has even popped up, to which phishing victims can be unknowingly diverted, featuring extra questions not in the original re: sexual preferences! #censusfail, one would have to remark; try again, try better.

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