Any inquiry into privacy in Germany would be incomplete without a look at the West German census of 1987 and the huge backlash against data collection it provoked. Opponents of the census challenged the very right of the West German state to know so much about what went on inside its borders, and argued that the census rules would permit personal information to be shared too widely among state agencies. A nationwide boycott movement went mainstream, a bitter debate about its propriety divided West Germans, and the Green Party made opposition a core issue. Even today, asking Germans about the subject, I noticed several repeating the same talking point: that a pre-WWII census in the Netherlands permitted Nazis to more easily round up Jews and other condemned classes when they invaded. This was intended to illustrate that even information collected with good intentions can be unexpectedly abused.
What a lot of foreigners in Berlin couldn't understand, and that confuses me too, is why the 1987 census, as well as Google Street View, caused such a fuss in the country, yet there seems to me no controversy about a longstanding requirement for everyone to register their address with authorities* when they move to a new city or apartment. Germans don't seem to be bothered by that policy, which would provoke widespread controversy even in some less privacy-conscious nations.
This seems strange to me and to many other foreign observers. Registering one's home address would seem to be as creepy to folks who cite what the Nazis did as a census. The Germans to whom I spoke understood why foreigners would be confused, but couldn't really explain why one thing was seen as more worrisome other than the fact that Germans had always had to register their address.
They were just used to it.
Perhaps that's all there is to it. Every nation is rife with seeming contradictions, and a lot of them are explained by cultural norms that just make some things seem... normal. I post on the subject in part to continue exploring how things are in Germany, but also because maybe there's a better explanation than any I got. Consider this another invitation for anyone with knowledge of Germany to chime in with informed theories. If you live in Germany, as a citizen or a foreigner, how do you think about the requirement to register with local authorities?
*Correction: The headline and two sentences in this story originally said that German citizens must register with police. It turns out that isn't quite the case. As a reader who lives in Germany and has knowledge of the law in question clarifies:
Your commenters are correct that you don’t go to the police station to register yourself. However, the police (and other federal and local agencies) have immediate access to the data collected by the resident registration office, without a warrant or other administrative procedure, so essentially it is the same thing. The police (and other agencies) make use of that data on a regular basis. And since administrative penalties (fines) would notionally attach to a failure to register, there is very much a law enforcement aspect to it. This isn’t an agency one voluntarily registers with to “get something”, like a driver’s license or a voting register. It’s mandatory. As Wolf and Christine mentioned, enforcement isn’t rigid, but on the books, it is still the law (and if you are a foreigner and fail to register, that does create considerable administrative problems). And no -- Germans really don't seem to mind it!
Thanks to the commenters below for tipping me off to the incorrect characterization, and to the quoted reader and two others for helping me to follow up.
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