German, American thinking on privacy, data-mining differs

I probably sometimes annoy my colleagues at the Miami Herald when I keep wondering how much access to private data people have here — whether you’re a citizen or a journalist. Everybody in the United States has access to criminal records and, with a few exceptions, who’s in foreclosure or bankruptcy or filing for divorce.

Is this one reason why Europeans are more worried than Americans about being spied on by the National Security Agency? I think so.

Let’s look at some examples:

A journalist in Germany covers a story in a local court. A guy was dealing drugs, not a huge amount, but he dealt. As a journalist you describe the case, what the prosecutors say and what the defendant argues. But you never use the name of the drug dealer.

As long as it is not a major criminal case or a case involving persons who are already part of public life like well-known politicians, VIPs or sports stars, people before the court will not be named (with, of course, a few exceptions). In the case of the drug dealer, even the village or other things that could identify the accused will not end up in the article. The defendant stays anonymous.

In Florida, I hear my colleagues say, “Why do you protect this guy? He’s accused of a crime.”

The answer is in the German Constitution: In its first article, it protects the dignity of the individual and his or her privacy. It says: “Human dignity is inviolable.”

Besides that, it is the goal of the German judicial system to reintegrate people after they have served their sentence, so a name in the news would complicate that goal and also harm the rest of the family.

The U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment stress the right of free expression. Public interest seems to count more than privacy — and private data — in the United States.

But the protection of personal data in Germany goes further: You cannot simply check online for criminal records or how much debt people have. This data is private.

Even information on whether Germans are married or not is hard to get. In most cases, that information is available only to the person directly affected.

Interest in pure sensationalism does not justify publishing private information. This is not only a law but the ethical code that journalists in Germany sign. That means, when coming back to the drug dealer example, that this case does not merit suspending the person’s right to privacy for the sake of public interest.

Not only are the laws in America and Germany different, so is the mentality of the two cultures.

Try to call a relative of somebody who died in a car accident. My experience: In Germany, they would hang up the phone. From what I have experienced here, people will talk with me about what happened.

Why the difference? Maybe the law shapes people’s minds of what is ethically correct or not, how far somebody can go, what information one is willing to share.

Another example: You will find a lot of German users of social media who don’t use their full name; they create fake names to protect their identity.

Are Germans oversensitive? Hysterical?

Do Americans care less?

I don’t know.

But it’s clear that the expectations and ideas about protection of data in the United States and Germany differ dramatically.

In conversations with American colleagues, politicians, lawyers and people on the street, I sometimes get the impression that people have accepted a lack of privacy as inevitable. They seem to be saying: Why worry? Our information is already out there. We cannot go back.

And that is probably the point. In Germany there is the feeling that not all our personal data is out there. And people want to protect that privacy. It may be why Europeans are more outraged than Americans about government spying for personal information.

Max Holscher is an Arthur F. Burns fellow at the International Center for Journalists and interning this summer at the Miami Herald. Holscher is a reporter and junior editor at Hessische/Niedersächsische Allgemeine Zeitung (HNA) in Germany.

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