German activists fight planned census in court

Next May, Germany is to conduct its first census in 24 years. Preparations are already underway, but the public is still unaware of these efforts. 1983 a broad movement managed to gain important changes for better security, and the constitutional court established the basic right to informational self-determination. Now, activists again want to take the resistance against extensive data collection to Karlsruhe.

“All that is happening completely under the radar”, says Oliver “Unicorn” Knapp. He is concerned with the planned census in the Chaos Computer Club (CCC). Together with Tim “Scytale” Weber, Knapp has held a lecture (Slides, in German) at Cologne’s Sigint Conference on the 2011 census law to raise public awareness for the issue. Currently, there is close to none, he says.

In Germany, the word “census” (“Volkszählung” – literally “population count”) is very much connected with a wave of protests from 1983 to 1987. In 1983, plans for a census clashed with an already highly politicized public sphere. Within weeks, hundreds of citizens’ initiatives formed over concerns transcending data security, supported by prominent public figures such as nobel prize laureate Günter Grass. The planned census was stopped and finally prohibited by the federal constitutional court in a groundbreaking decision which established the basic right to informational self-determination.

When the census was finally carried out in updated form in 1987, protests surrounding it turned against decreasing civil liberties and urged for more democracy. Activists called for a boycott of the census and “alternative collecting points” presented more than one million blank forms. The government reacted with a rigorous clampdown against protesters, but some municipalities supported the boycott and had to be forced to conduct the census interviews.

One of the reasons that today we see none of these protests might be that next year’s is going to be a so-called “register-based census”. That means that on the one hand, data from different public institutions will be merged and matched against each other. A process that will not show on the street. Thus the population only perceives the other part of the census – the questioning of a sample of ten percent of all households.

In theory, Germany already has detailed information of all inhabitants in registration offices. But in fact these databases are actually often inaccurate and sometimes not even available in standardized form. For that reason, data from job offices and government agencies (for civil servants) are also collected for the census. By matching these databases, it is expected to expose faults of the registration offices.

Datasets from registration offices, job centers and government agencies will be collected by the respective state offices and then transfered to the national office for statistics – without anonymization. That is also true for individuals who are part of a witness protection program. The entries registration offices hold about them bear a notation prohibitting to forward them. But for the census, these data will still be transfered – including the reference regarding the witness protection program.

The reference date for collecting data is on Mai 9, 2011. From this day on, the census also starts in the way that is still known from 1987: Interviewers are deployed to question Germany’s inhabitants. Unlike 23 years ago, not all of the population is subject to interrogations, but only every tenth household. Giving (correct) answers is obligatory and not doing so can be penalized by a fine of up to 5.000 Euros. This phase will take a few months (Official info graphic, in German).

But obviously, some people are more equal than others. There is a range of so-called “special sectors”: Prisons, nursing homes, psychiatries, doss houses. Here, not only samples are taken, but each inhabitant of these facilities is going to be registered, the CCC acitivists say. The statistics offices mention additional interviews “in some cases”, because the data situation there was especially error-prone. The liability to disclose the requested information is with the establishments’ managements, the individuals concerned are only informed that data is transferred.

Already two weeks before the reference date, all the nation’s real estate owners will receive mail. They have to disclose information on their property, disclose whether a flat has a toilet, bathtub or shower. This questioning is conducted per mail, which is why it is expected to take longer: 14 months. Questioning of a population sample and real estate owners combined, about 30 percent of all inhabitants will have to provide information.

These data will be merged and linked up at the national office for statistics. „That in the process the most comprehensive population index in Germany’s history is created is thus no fault, but intended“, Knapp and Weber write in an article for CCC magazine, “Datenschleuder“.

Additionally, all information is linked up with a unique personal identification number. „For any address, any building, any flat, any household and any person national and state statistics offices assign and keep an identification number, which can be applied across municipalities and buildings. Identification numbers can be used in mergings according to §9“, says the census act.

Both activists see this as a clear breach of Germany’s constitution. They point to 1983’s famous “census verdict”, in which the federal constitutional court established a basic right to informational self-determination. At the core of this judgment, Knapp and Weber see the declaration that

a comprehensive registration and indexing of the personality through merging individual biographical and personal data in order to create profiles of the personality of the citizens […] is inadmissible even in the anonymity of statistical censi.

But other aspects of the law for 2011’s census as well seem to cross the lines defined by the constitutional judges in their decision. Back then, a lack of anonymization was one of the reasons to block the original plans. Subsequently in 1987, block-wise anonymization was adopted. But today, this security measure is no object anymore.

Another point of criticism in 1983 was that original plans included using census data to correct registration offices’ databases. The constitutional court put a stop to this as well, which seems to still be extant in the so-called “separation principle”: According to that, census data may only be used for statistical purposes. But without anonymization, it is hard to rule out misuse.

The German census act implements an EU directive, other European countries will question their population as well in 2011. But the federal republic exceeds the minimal requirements set by Brussels in two cases. The form will additionally ask whether interviewees or their parents have migrated to Germany, as well as for religious beliefs held by them (answering the latter is optional).

Ten years ago, Germany and Sweden were the only countries not to participate in the European census. 1991 as well a census planned after the fall of the Berlin wall was canceled, which would have updated statistical information on the reunited German nation. The costs were deemed to high back then, but fear of protests from the population was critical for the cancellation as well.

This time costs are again a major issue. 750 million Euros are budgeted for the census, a third of which will be paid by the federal government. Municipalities are thus far from happy about the project since they will have to pay high expenses for administration as well as execution of the census.

Since 1987 (in Eastern Germany 1981), Germany has not had a census, except for an annual microcensus in which about one percent of the population is surveyed. The national office for statistics still works on the base of this old data. But population registers must have considerably improved since 2007, when their data was used for the roll-out of a unique tax payer’s account number. Registration offices were notified about flawed data, which could thus be used to reassess the registers.

Proponents of the census do not tire to emphasize the need for accurate, up-to-date population statistics. In fact, some important decisions are made on the base of these data, including the allocation of large sums of money on a state, federal and EU level. CCC activists Knapp and Weber are therefore sure that it will not be possible to stop the census in its entirety.

Yet at CCC’s Cologne conference Sigint, they called for a constitutional complaint against the law. Still at the event, a working group was formed as a subgroup of anti-surveillance umbrella organization Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung (“working group on data retention”). Its goal is to take the census to Germany’s federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe, where the activists hope to achieve better anonymization of collected data.

On June 22, the constitutional complaint was put up online for public support. Up to now, nearly 7000 citizens have signed the petition on the site of civil rights group FoeBuD. The deadline for submitting the complaint is on July 15, when the one-year respite after the passing of the law expires. Until then, attorney Eva Dworschak will prepare the final text to be submitted to Karlsruhe.

What’s up after that? To stop the census in its current form, the federal constitutional court would have to bar it by interim measure. The activists are confident that even Germany’s highest judges are not ignorant to events on the street. A wave of protest as in 1983 would not leave them cold. Thus the issue up next is to form a movement that brings together veteran anti-census protesters and members of Germany’s “new civil rights movement” which has formed up during last years’ in the fight against data retention and internet filtering.

As a member of the Siegen chapter of Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung and FoeBuD, I will do my part in this. We are currently planning a street event to inform people on the upcoming census and collect supporters’ signatures for the constitutional complaint. If you are from Siegen, you are invited to join us in our preparational meeting on Thursday, July 1. More info here.

This article is an updated translation of a post I wrote for Spreeblick, “Aktivisten planen Verfassungsbeschwerde gegen Volkszählung 2011”.

You may also like