The price of internal security

As sudden and sudden as the attacks in New York and Washington came, they must have been planned well in advance – the experts agreed on this. The trail quickly led to western countries, and just a few days after the attacks it was clear that three of the four fatal pilots had lived in Hamburg before the crime and had led a double life there as so-called sleepers.

The news triggered hectic activity in Germany and put the ongoing issue of internal security on the political agenda once again. The fact that the assassins were able to live undisturbed and undetected shook many citizens’ feelings of security. Since then, the federal government has tried to restore people’s trust in the state with an abundance of laws.

In an urgent procedure, the government issued two security packages just a few weeks after the attacks, which were also passed at top speed with the votes of the SPD, the Greens and the Union Bundestag and Bundesrat. The measures adopted are primarily intended to have a preventive effect: They grant the security authorities extensive powers that are intended to enable them to identify suspected terrorists before they can commit their act.

Closing ranks of the parties

The political reaction to reacting to an alleged or real internal threat with stricter laws is not new. What is unusual, however, is the speed with which they were launched and the rare agreement with which they were decided. Before September 11, these measures would certainly have met with fierce public opposition: this was shown by the protests against the emergency laws, the census and the great eavesdropping.

Interior Minister Otto Schily had already made it clear shortly after the attacks that, in his opinion, some data protection provisions endanger internal security and need to be changed quickly. An attitude that was received with applause at the Union. "With us you don’t need to do any persuasion," said Union parliamentary deputy Wolfgang Bosbach. The green coalition partner, a traditional advocate of civil rights, has raised concerns. Finally, the Greens also approved the bill.

Criticism came from the PDS and FDP. PDS deputy chief Petra Pau warned that the "promised gain in security" would be paid for with a "significant loss of freedom". The FDP complained that in a hurry the opposition’s opportunities to participate had been ignored. Prominent liberals – such as the former Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger – warned against neglecting the rights of citizens.

Citizens under general suspicion?

In fact, the new laws intervene massively in the right to data protection: The law enables the constitutional protection to query customer data from credit institutions as well as financial, aviation and telecommunications companies. It also opens up the possibility of adding a photo and signature to another biometric feature such as fingerprints or hand geometry in passports and ID cards. This is to be finally determined in a federal law. Never before in post-war Germany has the security authorities been allowed to collect and pass on personal data to this extent.

Above all, however, the measures are directed against foreigners. ID cards with biometric data are already being introduced for these. Asylum seekers’ fingerprints can in future be automatically compared with the data from the Federal Criminal Police Office. The protection of the Constitution has expanded access to asylum and foreigner data: foreigners who are considered extremist are expelled, and the same applies to foreigners who support an organization that in turn supports international terrorism. What counts as "international terrorism" is not defined, however. Critics fear that this will depend on Germany’s foreign policy interests. In addition, they see developments in security policy as an expression of a new state mistrust of non-Germans.

Male, Islamic, keen to travel wanted

The fact that Germans remain largely unmolested in the fight against terrorism, while foreigners are exposed to informational access by the secret services, becomes clear when one takes a look at the official catalog of criteria for the automated search: After September 11th, the federal states carried out a " preventive raster search "for possible" sleepers ". Universities, offices and private companies were asked for the data of all those employees who fall into the grid: "male, Arabic, technical degree, busy travel, legal residence status in Germany and financially independent". A grid that applies to many of the Muslims living in Germany, makes mistakes likely and precisely suspects those who are not suspects.

Shortly after the search was initiated, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany reported on complaints from Muslim families whose houses were searched for no reason, who had been picked up for interrogation during the night or had been detained for two to three days. This leads to the fact that among the Arabs living in Germany, confidence in the security policy of the state is waning.

In addition, the efficiency of the grid search is questionable. It is true that some companies and universities willingly put data into the grid flag. In Hamburg, for example, the data from more than 10,000 students was sent to the authorities within ten days. However, the hoped-for success has not yet materialized: Seven men were arrested in Hamburg in July on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks. However, hours later they had to be released again.

Necessary measures involve dangers

The state cannot remain idle in the face of the threat of terrorism. But politics treads a fine line between legitimate reaction and authoritarian surveillance. In February of this year, the "Interdisciplinary Working Group on Internal Security" – an association of social scientists, criminologists and lawyers – warned of a surveillance state.

This warning cannot be dismissed out of hand: The old question arises of who controls the controllers and whether the democratic institutions are able to keep up with developments. If this does not succeed, then one of the foundations of democracy – the guaranteed freedom of the individual regardless of his or her ethnic origin or religious affiliation – threatens to collapse.

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