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'Privacy' vs. German hunt for spies

Mr. Bunte was in a hurry, so he simply picked up the phone, mentioned his name, Bonn police headquarters, and asked for quick oral information. He got it. The woman student he was inquiring about had come from East Germany in 1956 as a child, the Clausthal Technical University official at the other end of the line told Mr. Bunte. Her mother was a nurse; the student had suffered an accident and had been operated on; she had married a carpenter's apprentice on July 4, 1974.

Medical information, marital information, family history -- data protected in its confidentiality by the law -- all given out casually over the phone.

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A police raid followed this conversation -- not on the university administrator, but on Mr. Bunte, a leftist communist student who made this and numerous other phone calls and publicized the results in a student flyer protesting routine university violations of student confidentiality.

The police made a five-hour search of Mr. Bunte's office, charged him with tape recording university officials without their knowledge, and told him he was under suspicion of having impersonated a policeman.

It is cases like this that have had some West German students demonstrating against "secret policing." Their frequency is suggested by the fact that only one or two of the 15 universities Mr. Bunte contacted resisted giving him the information he sought. It's cases like this that made West German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum issue new data-protection guidelines at the end of March.

Mr. Baum is the latest in a decade of liberal interior ministers in West Germany's Social Democratic-Free Democratic coalition to try to reconcile computers and privacy in this age of information. So far it seems to be a losing battle. The Free Democratic liberals traditionally champion individual rights, but the flood of information required for a complex economy, social welfare -- and university stipends -- keeps overflowing the would-be dams of privacy.

The problem is the same in every modern society. It is especially acute, however, in a West Germany that must protect itself against a coterie of violent terrorists and East German spies. A country where the habitual respect for authority is so great that a telephone caller need only mention the magic word "police" to induce officials to read out confidential files.

Mr. Baum's new attempt to restore privacy to information in government hands starts with three premises.

1. The various police agencies -- which critics deem the prime violators of privacy -- must not normally have access to confidential information, whether in university records or in other police agency computers.

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2. Information gathered in police investigations that is not used for trial must be erased from computer memories after an automatic time limit.

3. All citizens must have a right to know what information is being kept about them.

Despite West Germany's data protection law of 1976, these principles have not been established in practice.

Mr. Baum's new voluntary guidelines state further that the structure of the police information system should in principle be open. They stipulate that information be gathered only for the purposes of specific investigation of crimes and public danger. They seek to limit fishing expeditions of mass data collection without specific grounds for suspecting criminal action by the individuals involved. The guidelines call for a strict separation from each other of different government information files.

In presenting his reform, Mr. Baum specified that the Office of Protection of the Constitution (which deals with espionage) would no longer have automatic access to federal criminal office (Bundeskriminalamt or BKA) files, and vice versa.

Horst Herold, president of the BKA (roughly equivalent to the FBI in the United States) and Hans-Peter Bull, West Germany's first data-protection commissioner, have basically agreed to Mr. Baum's guidelines. The guidelines are described as a "positive compromise" between the police need for secrecy and an open society's need for transparency.

Their agreement is in sharp contrast to the tussling that followed Mr. Baum's first data-protection report a year ago, with its criticism of BKA practices.

Checks on the system are to include tightening of the existing compulsory notification of surveillance to citizens who fall under a police investigation net but are not themselves prime suspects. Checks also include informing any citizen denied access to police information about himself that he may appeal the withholding to the data-protection commissioner. Before now, a citizen has had access to such information only in exceptional cases.

Conservative critics of the new guidelines fear that the police would be hamstrung in their investigation of terrorist and spy suspects. Even before Mr. Baum's report came out, some conservative opposition politicians were calling Mr. Baum a "security risk" because of his strong views on individual rights.

Civil libertarian critics of Mr. Baum's new guidelines are skeptical about their effect. Legally, they are nonbinding, and officials in the majority of conservatively governed states in West Germany have shown no great enthusiasm for them. Even in Bonn, it has been the privacy protesters like Mr. Bunte who have felt the stick of law enforcement, and not the officials who disseminate confidential information.


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