Scandal over Berlin police investigative methods


One of hundreds of cars set ablaze during a series of car arsonies in Berlin, Germany in August 2011.


Sean Gallup

BERLIN, Germany —With their troubled history of two dictatorships, Germans are understandably sensitive to the notion of the police snooping into their private phone calls. So the revelations that Berlin police officers have, for years, been collecting data on thousands of cell phones has caused outrage.

On Monday, the police admitted that since 2008 it had asked mobile phone operators for data on a staggering 4.2 million mobile phone connections, in an attempt to capture the perpetrators of a series of arson attacks on cars in the city.

The Berlin police said that they had made 375 separate applications for the data in connection with the torching of hundreds of cars in recent years. In over 950 cases the police found that a phone had been in the vicinity of one of the crime scenes at least five times, leading them to then request the names and addresses of the phones’ owners.

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The revelations have lead to outrage from politicians, lawyers and data protection activists about the extent of the police operation.

The Green Party has called for a moratorium on this investigative method if the criteria for such measures are not tightened up. The Pirate Party, which won seats in the Berlin state election in September and sees privacy as one of its major themes, has also severely criticized the practice.

Berlin’s Interior Minister Frank Henkel defended the police, saying that their methods had been legal and proportionate considering the seriousness of the crimes.

According to German law, phone data can be accessed in the case of “serious crimes” such as murder and robbery, as well as arson attacks on automobiles.

The German capital has been plagued with a series of arson attacks on cars in recent years. In 2011 alone over 700 cars were either damaged or destroyed, leading the Berlin police at one stage to deploy hundreds of officers every night in an attempt to capture the culprits.

In October, they arrested a 27-year-old man who admitted to setting fire to over 100 cars. The police tracked him down by analyzing surveillance footage from public transportation that he used to get to and from the crime scenes. They admitted this week that the massive monitoring of mobile phone data had not yielded any results in the arson investigations.

Berlin’s data protection officer Alexander Dix said that his office intends to examine the case. “We want to know, what was the justification for gaining this data and what was it used for.” He also said that people have the right to know if they are being investigated by the police and that the data should have been destroyed.

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He told the Die Tageszeitung newspaper he had been shocked by the extent of the data retention, and at the fact that “an investigative instrument, which was adopted for very special exceptional situations... to protect against terrorism, has since been used relatively routinely,” adding: “And without any recognizable gain in knowledge or security.”

Data privacy advocates have long complained that the controversial data retention law would be abused.

Last year a similar case caused huge controversy after it emerged that police in Dresden had assessed around 1 million pieces of mobile phone data following a protest march against a huge neo-Nazi demonstration to mark the anniversary of the World War II bombing of the city. The scale of the probe was criticized, considering the fact that the police were only searching for a few dozen people who had been involved in rioting on the fringes of the anti-Nazi march.

The Berlin police’s zealous investigative methods only came to light after watchdog website obtained documents showing the police had monitored data from thousands of phones in the district of Friedrichshain in October 2009 following the torching of a BMW.