EU court rules against German data collection law

A German law requiring telecoms companies to retain customer data is a breach of EU legislation, a European court ruled Tuesday, prompting the justice minister to vow an overhaul of the rules.

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) speaks in the Bundestag.
Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) speaks in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

Firms Telekom Deutschland and SpaceNet took action in the German courts challenging the law that obliged telecoms firms to retain customers’ traffic and location data for several weeks to fight serious crime.

The case headed to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg, which ruled against the German legislation.

“EU law precludes the general and indiscriminate retention of traffic and location data,” the court said in a statement, confirming its previous judgements on the issue.

The Federal Administrative Court, one of Germany’s top courts, had argued there was a limited possibility of conclusions being drawn about people’s private lives from the data, and sufficient safeguards were in place.

But the ECJ said the German legislation – which required traffic data to be retained for 10 weeks, and location for four – applies to a “very broad set” of information.

It “may allow very precise conclusions to be drawn concerning the private lives of the persons whose data are retained… and, in particular, enable a profile of those persons to be established.”

The stated aim of the law was to prosecute serious criminal offences or hinder specific risks to national security, but the court said that such measures were not permitted on a “preventative basis”.

However, it said that in cases where an EU state faces a “serious threat to national security” that is “genuine and present”, telecoms providers can be ordered to retain data.

Such an instruction must be subject to review and can only be in place for a period deemed necessary.

Following the announcement, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann hailed a “good day for civil rights”.

“We will now, swiftly and definitively, remove data retention without cause from the law,” the minister wrote on Twitter.

Data privacy is a sensitive issue in Germany, where people faced mass surveillance under the Nazi regime as well as in communist East Germany.

Buschmann is from the liberal FDP party, which has made data protection a key plank of its policies.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser – from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party – said she did not “want to have old debates, but act pragmatically”.

Nevertheless, she added the court ruling still gave the government space to implement “what is permissible and urgently necessary”.

Faeser noted the ruling still allowed measures such as the storing of IP addresses as part of efforts to fight crime, which she said could help in combating sexual violence against children.

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Germany deploys waste collectors to map mobile blackspots

On a street in Wusterhausen, around an hour's drive north of Berlin, a man paces intently, holding his mobile phone in front of him.

Germany deploys waste collectors to map mobile blackspots

“I’m looking for network, because here this area is not good,” says Arek Karasinski, in town on a business trip from Poland.

Issues with phone signal are a source of constant frustration for the residents of Wusterhausen, which sits in one of Germany’s many blackspots, out of reach of any mobile network.

“We’re here in Germany, an industrial nation, and we have all of these dead zones,” says Matthias Noa, head of waste management firm AWU.

Noa was so exasperated that when the local government asked if they could use his garbage trucks to do something about it, he quickly agreed.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany is trying to tackle its slow internet problem

Since the summer, the trucks have been fitted with a device that measures the signal quality on their routes across the district of Ostprignitz-Ruppin.

Because their work takes them everywhere across the area, they are the perfect vehicles for the job.

“We go out on the ground, into every nook,” says Werner Nuese, the vice-president of the local council, who was not satisfied with the efforts made by public bodies or private groups to plot the signal problems.

Jonny Basner, a driver participating in the programme, knows the trouble well. “It would be great if I had enough signal to reach the depot from the villages (on the route),” he says.

Trackers have been handed out to hikers and cyclists to fill in the gaps left by the rubbish collectors.

On a map, Nuese points out the spots marked in red where the signal is at its worst.

“Even if this is a rural area in the northeast of Germany, we shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s our demand,” he says.

‘On the terrace’

A short walk shows the issues people are facing.

“Outside on the terrace I can get signal, but in the house there is nothing, no one can reach me on the phone,” says Dieter Mueller in the village of Bantikow.

About 10 kilometres (six miles) away in Wusterhausen itself, Marko Neuendorf says he has cancelled his phone contract “because there simply is no signal here”.

The region would become more attractive to investors and tourists if the mobile network were better, local officials believe.

“Every cottage industry has gone digital, every single electrician uses a tablet to order spare parts. It’s not just big companies that are more digital,” says Noa.

Council official Nuese says medical spas in the area have been getting poor reviews “because the signal is very bad”.

“It’s a measurable economic disadvantage,” he says. The obsolescence of a lot of Germany’s infrastructure and administration
shot to the top of the political agenda with the exit of Chancellor Angela Merkel from office a year ago.

READ ALSO: Fact check: Is Germany’s internet really that bad?

According to official data, standard LTE coverage, equivalent to 4G, is at 100 percent. But in a survey by the price comparison site Verivox, published earlier this year, most people said they regularly experienced a lack of signal when using their phones.

In 2018, then economy minister Peter Altmaier said he was “very annoyed to have to call back three, four times because it cut off” when making calls from his car on official business.

By producing more detailed signal maps, the council hopes to encourage a response from mobile network operators and to lobby the government for more support.

By Lara Bommers