Europe, U.S. privacy differs on Boston bombing

The United States is an on-camera nation, as the efforts to identify suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings showed this week. In the battle of security vs. privacy, many European countries have made a different calculation.

U.S. authorities in recent days reviewed thousands of videos before they released the images of two brothers suspected of planting bombs in Boston, and there were hints that they could tap into far larger police databases to speed their search. In Europe, expectations for privacy are significantly more robust, making it harder for authorities to push boundaries in their snooping on citizens but also restraining their ability to respond to acts of terrorism.

European legal attitudes toward privacy differ from country to country, and some nations, such as Britain, have so many surveillance cameras that even George Orwell’s house is surrounded by them. But many countries frown on both public and private surveillance. Boston’s massive data dragnet probably would have been legally treacherous in many European nations, officials said Friday. Above all, they said, detective work need not depend on pervasive monitoring to be successful.

“It’s not about the amount of information, but how it’s used,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German member of the European Parliament who has pushed for the European Union’s data protection regulations to be tightened and standardized. “How did police work when there were no surveillance cameras in this world? I don’t think there was no security.”

In a region where communist-era secret police were active just over two decades ago, “you have a historical memory of excessive and arbitrary use of law enforcement,” Albrecht said. “Many of us are not led by the wish to reduce the efficiency of law enforcement agencies, but just to prevent their excessive use.”

So the major marshaling of data this week in Boston — stitching together surveillance images, private cellphone videos and sometimes inaccurate crowd-sourcing — drew surprise in Europe and some discomfort. Although several European officials expressed sympathy after the attack, they also said it was a testament that tremendous volumes of data do not create safety.

“If you ask me personally, I am horrified,” said Thilo Weichert, the data protection commissioner of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, speaking of the surveillance situation in the United States. Weichert has tangled with Facebook over its requirement that users employ their real names when surfing the site, arguing that people should be allowed anonymity.

“Surveillance doesn’t give more security. That’s our experience,” Weichert said. “There might be some kinds of data storage that are adequate and that are important to ensure security, but in general, more data, more security? That’s not a real relationship.”

For a country such as Germany where population censuses cause controversy because they stir memories of Nazi-era racial counting, the question is how to balance modern security concerns with cultural sensitivities, analysts say. There are tight restrictions on how long surveillance camera images can be retained. A 2008 constitutional court decision clamped down on security officials’ ability to monitor computer activity remotely. Even after a crime has been committed, many suspects are identified by police and media by only their first name and last initial. The rotating online galleries of police mugshots that have become popular in recent years in the United States would be unthinkable, analysts say.

The cautious attitude applies to security agencies and private companies alike. When Google created its Street View database of Germany, regulators forced the company to allow individuals to obscure their residences in the street-level images. Many Germans took advantage of the opportunity. German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner quit Facebook in 2010 to protest its data-protection practices, and she urged other German cabinet ministers to do the same.

Even e-mail addresses in Europe frequently follow hush-hush conventions. Whereas in the United States it became customary years ago for people to use some variation of their name as their address, many European officials and private individuals hide behind an impenetrable screen of numbers and letters.

“We have massive debates on data preservation and data storage here in Germany,” said Annegret Bendiek, an expert on E.U. security policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “The priority is more on security in the U.S. because of 9/11, and here in Germany and Europe, the freedom aspect is more on the line.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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