Hundreds protest German data retention proposal

A large group of lawyers gathered in Berlin to protest against a proposed data retention law that will force telecom companies to retain customers' phone and Internet data for 10 weeks.



The draft law was adopted by the German federal government last month.

Organized by a Hamburg-based group calling itself Lawyers Against Total Surveillance, Saturday's demonstration outside Chancellor Angela Merkel's office saw a large group of lawyers dressed in legal robes protest the bill that allows mass storage of data as they carried banners that read "Protect lawyers' secrets," "No tapping lawyers," and "Freedom is a basic right."

Speaking at the rally, former vice-president of the Bundestag, Burkhard Hirsch said that phone tapping without any reasonable doubt violated basic rights and threatened democracy.

The rally also marked the second anniversary of whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency's activities.

Member of parliament and lawyer Hans-Christian Stroebele thanked Snowden for having leaked "at the risk of his life" top secret documents that disclosed U.S. global spying programs, and harshly criticized Germany's intelligence agency, BND, over gathering data on behalf of the United States.

Calling for an end to such practices, Stroebele also urged everybody to fight against such mass tapping.

Snowden, who is currently living in exile in Moscow to avoid facing espionage charges in the United States, sent a letter to the event calling on lawyers to protect the conversations with their clients on the basis of client privacy.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that the draft law would require firms to keep details on the time and duration of telephone calls, location data and Internet protocol addresses to identify web users.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the proposed legislation provided a balance between protecting freedoms and security interests. "We will protect the private sphere,” he said in the statement. “The contents of any communication will not be stored.”

He also promised the data would not be used to create personal profiles to track the movements of individuals.

“The email traffic of users will not be stored,” Maas added. “We have also shortened the storage period of the retained data and restricted access to this.”

However, opposition parties sharply criticized the planned law as a step toward a “total surveillance state.”

In a statement, Left Party’s deputy leader Jan Korte described the proposal as a “dark day for our freedoms and constitutional rights” and warned that stored data could be accessed by criminals.

“[The] NSA scandal clearly shows that stored data cannot be completely protected from being accessed by secret services or criminal hackers,” Korte said. “The best solution for data protection is avoiding data retention.”

Green Party lawmaker Renate Kunast, chairwoman of parliament’s legal affairs committee, said the draft included would infringe constitutional rights.

“When people have to assume that they will continuously be under surveillance, then freedoms and personality development would simply go away,” she told public broadcaster ARD.

Germany’s previous data retention law was annulled by the Constitutional Court in 2010 over privacy infringement. The 2007 legislation had obliged telecom companies to store customers’ data for six months.

As well as cutting the retention period, the new legislation will require the security services to obtain court permission to examine data. Access to the communications of journalists, lawyers and doctors will be barred.

Parliament will vote on the proposal next month and the coalition government’s majority is likely to pass the legislation.