Monday, November 28, 2005

Mission creep par excellence? Germany considers using road toll data for police purposes

Once personal data have been collected, new ideas will emerge about useful things that could be done with them — even if that flies in the face of data protection. This is often alleged by privacy advocates, and once more about to be proven true by authorities in Germany.

When the country installed its admirable (and long delayed) high tech system for automatizing road toll data handling about a year ago, using 300 cameras, GPS positioning and mobile control teams on 12000 kilometers of autobahn for charging or controlling trucks' payments, it was clear that the data thus gained would not be allowed to be used for other purposes. Indeed, a paragraph in the law establishing the system states explicitly:
“These data can only be processed and used for the purpose of monitoring the compliance with the rules laid down in this law. A transfer, use or confiscation of these data is inadmissible.”
(§ 7, 2 of Autobahnmautgesetz [version of 2.12.2004]).
Now, barely a year after the system has come into existence, a death case involving a truck driver on an autobahn truck stop is being used as an excuse to move the goal posts and give policy access to the data collected by the system. As SPIEGEL online and tagesschau report, authorities may be allowed to use the data to fight terrorists (!) and capital criminals. They are following a demand from the Association of German Detectives who claim that cases like the aforementioned one could more easily be solved if existing restrictione on toll data use were being lifted.

Politicians from the opposition Green and Leftist parties have already protested against the plans; but Germany's Federal Data Protection Officer in an interview with national television seemed not to mind very much. Experts, however, have questioned the usability of the system for monitoring traffic in real time as its data processing capability was too restricted for this (see the report in today's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, pp. 1 and 4).

If the rules will be changed to allow police to make use of them, it would indeed be an excellent case of “mission creep” — compare the case of US airline passenger data in this blog.

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