They’ll Find You

By Miranda Metheny

Protesting Google Street View

Germans can be a little paranoid. They don’t trust Facebook or Google with their data. They consider Google Earth to be a type of insidious surveillance more than a useful navigational tool. The idea of a CCTV camera being installed in a metro station or a dark street corner is enough to send them into a panic. To hear them tell it, even the slightest infringement of privacy, even in public places, even for “seemingly” justifiable means, will only start them all on a slippery slope into a surveillance society ala “1984.”

I’m not talking about a league of rebel hackers or a disenfranchised group leaping on any cause — I’m talking about the everyday German — that father pushing a stroller or that cafeteria lady. And this isn’t a matter of old fashioned grandparents fearing the technology they don’t understand — the trend isn’t showing the least sign of slowing with the younger generation. Facebook, for example, has a market penetration of only 12 percent in Germany — that’s compared to 41 percent in Chile and 26 percent in Malaysia. Even neighboring Austria, which shares Germany’s native language, is up to 24.9 percent. In my experience, even those Germans who do use Facebook tend to use it sparingly, much happier with event planning features than with sending their precious photos under the ownership of an untrustworthy company.

Like any anthropologist, I can’t help but wonder when I see statistics like this. Most American teenagers are a lot more easy going about these issues. We doubt that police cameras on street corners will lead, unchallenged, to a police state. We realize that, for the vast majority of people, “private secrets” are only important to their own network of friends and family, and that the government, if they were to listen in, would most likely be bored to tears and go back to their business. Or else we just bury our heads and try our hardest not think about it. After all, how could something as addictive as Facebook ever harm anyone?

But Germans are different.

Could it be because they still remember their government taking… shall we say… aggressive measures towards various forms of dissent? Because they lived for so long facing the iron curtain? Because East Germany’s DDR boasted secret police, wire-tapping, censorship, the works?

It’s entirely possible. But why isn’t the younger generation moving on? Where is the boundless idealism, the sense than none of that could happen today, that the police and the government are essentially good? It’s been a rough century for Germany, but today’s young adults grew up in a new time, and it doesn’t always show. Why this continued paranoia that the government will, if given an inch, take a mile?

Maybe because… it does. Germany’s got police for almost everything.

  • There are Crime Police… for, you know, serious crimes. The Guard Police spend their time on more minor disturbances. Then you’ve got the Autobahn Police who watch the highways and the Federal Criminal Police, who are modeled after the FBI. There used to be Border Police, but now that the E.U. has all but eliminated border controls, they’ve been renamed the Federal Police and have replaced the previously separate Train Police.
  • Not sorting your trash correctly into the six different, colour-coded bins? If you’re a repeat offender, you’ll get a not-so-friendly visit from the Trash Police.
  • Trying to get out of the steep taxes on each and every television and radio you own? Certain groups are exempted, and a lot of Germans seem to get out of this by simply being careful not to open the door. But if you’re suspicious enough, the Broadcast Police (who receive commissions for bringing fresh blood to the table), have been known to sit outside apartments waiting to hear the TV or radio be turned on.

Out on the town, because of Germany’s strict rule-following culture, you could be yelled at and maybe even punished by fellow citizens for such heinous crimes as crossing a street when the pedestrian light is red or touching a seat with your foot on public transportation.

Is it any wonder that, when they’re finally back home, trash carefully sorted and TVs turned down low, Germans are ready for some serious privacy?

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