Friday, May 04, 2007

Germany to introduce unique personal identifier — for tax purposes

It has been a long time in the making — since 2003, to be precise, when the Tax Bill passed in December of that year created the provisions, but it is only now that the implementation takes place: on 1 July 2007, the German Federal Tax Office (Bundeszentralamt für Steuern) will start building a new database which will have an eleven digit unique identifier (or "tax ID") for every person in the Federal Republic of Germany. The details can be found in § 139b of the Tax Code (Abgabenordnung).

This is the first time that a central register of the whole population will be created, and it will contain the person's number, name, doctoral title (if present — I always knew Germans were nuts about these…), the day and place of birth, the gender, the residential address, and ultimately also the day of death. For these data will only be deleted twenty years after that fateful event. The taxt ID will be created at birth, not only when the person becomes liable for tax.

German data protection officers have been very critical of this — most recently, the Federal Data Protection Officer in his annual report 2005/06 which was presented only two weeks ago (see page 100 of the report which can be downloaded here). But these interventions only limited the use to taxation issues so far — whether any "mission creep" will set in once this wonderful data pool exists, remains to be seen. There have been other cases in which it was tried to extend the purpose ex post, most recently the Autobahn road toll data (see this blog post from November 2005).

What seems remarkable is the complete public disinterest in what is arguably a more serious and concrete threat to every single German citizens' privacy than many other cases which are far more in the public spotlight, especially since it has been announced for more than three years which would have allowed plenty of time to mobilize against it. But then, my experience as a political scientist has always taught me that it is foolish to assume a linear relationship between facts and public perception... Or is it just that activists don't read the tax code?

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

House of Commons and House of Lords launch inquiries into the "surveillance society"

The subject of privacy and surveillance has been moving up the United Kingdom's political agenda since last autumn, as I have argued in this blog on various occasions (see here, here, here and here). Now, it seems, the debate has reached the Houses of Parliament, after various reports and many newspaper stories (as well as some recent accidents) have drawn substantial attention to it.

Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have recently launched inquiries into questions of surveillance and data collection. The House of Commons does it under the auspices of its Select Committee on Home Affairs, and its inquiry will be concerned with the question "A Surveillance Society?" The inquiry (the oral evidence phase of which started yesterday, 1 May, with evidence being given by the Information Commissioner) will

"focus on Home Office responsibilities such as identity cards, the National DNA Database and CCTV, but where relevant will look also at other departments’ responsibilities in this area, for instance the implications of databases being developed by the Department of Health and the DfES for use in the fight against crime."

The Lords inquiry "to investigate the impact of surveillance and data collection" takes place through the Constitution Committee and will focus

"on the constitutional implications of the collection and use of surveillance and other personal data by the State and (insofar as they can be used by the State) private companies, particularly with regard to the impact on the relationship between citizen and state."

A "call for evidence" has been issued, and anybody who has something to offer can write to the House of Lords by Friday, 8 June 2007. Twelve Lords will conduct the inquiry, and my colleague Charles Raab from the University of Edinburgh has been appointed as Specialist Adviser for the duration of the inquiry.

The transparency of the procedures and the breadth of (especially the Lords') inquiry is certainly laudable, and it will be very interesting to observe the deliberations of the committees and read (and compare!) their respective results.

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