Data Is As Data Does

The Bürgeramt. One of the most frequented bureaucratic strongholds in Germany. This is where you register. You bring your ID and proof of residency and then the Bürgeramt notes in its systems where you live.

SERIOUSLY? Was my reaction to being told I had to be registered to do the most banal things like open a bank account and get a video rental card. It was 2000. Yes, I went to the video store.

But I had no choice. So I went to the Bürgeramt with my passport and my rental contract, reassuring myself that this was the equivalent of putting my social security number on any number of documents in the United States. What’s the harm. Then I got a letter from The GEZ.

The GEZ was a collective organization of Germany’s public broadcasters. So… not a government organization. It was responsible for collecting broadcasting licensing fees. And the letter stated that I had to list any televisions or radios in my home. Easy. I had neither. Done.

I gave this all no further thought until I moved again. Another trip to the Bürgeramt followed by another letter from the GEZ. Still no radio or television. Check. But this time things went down a bit differently.

Flash forward a few years. My doorbell rings. Burly foreboding guy waving an ID card. He’s from the GEZ. He wants to know if I have a television or a radio. No, I do not. Could he come inside to verify that? NO YOU MAY NOT! New York instincts on high alert, I unceremoniously slammed my door shut before he could finish rambling off his cloaked threats about steep fees for secretly “harboring” unregistered devices. Not cool Bürgeramt.

This entire episode was shocking for two reasons. First, because a government official actually provided my name and address to this goon. Second, because privacy is to Germans what freedom is to Americans. Sacred. This is the country that halted Google Street View dead in its tracks and got Facebook’s facial recognition feature axed.

So why did the Bürgeramt get a carte blanche? Why were the newspapers not featuring stories about administrative offices passing along data? Why were citizens not protesting over menacing hulks appearing on the doorsteps of private residences hoping to come in and have a looksy? For all the information I freely gave to Mark Zuckerberg, he, nor any of his cohorts, ever came knocking on my door asking to peek inside.

And I see in this a fundamental cultural divide on the issue of data privacy. Many Americans tend to be lax about voluntarily providing personal information. Particularly on social media platforms. Perhaps the provision of data is simply deemed a necessary stipulation for partaking in the service. It all boils down to this: we freely giveth and the service freely provideth. And should one be miffed about the terms of provision, and sick and tired of dating service and sexy lingerie adverts, then the door is open. Bye.

But when a government organization requests data –or rather demands it– other rules apply. When citizens are obliged to register their name and address, the wardens of this data had best be forthcoming about what type of riff raff might show up on the front stoop as a result.

In Germany, the right to virtual anonymity is under far more intense scrutiny than the right to anonymity within your own four walls. And though I have yet to truly comprehend the divergence of sensitivities regarding personal data, it seems as if the GEZ was reckoned a necessary evil. Because far more important than government officials sharing private data is the need for publically funded and unbiased reporting and educational programming. I’m sure NPR and Sesame Street would approve. And in an ironic twist, Sesamstraße airs on a publically funded broadcasting network in Germany.

But why are those nasty corporate goliaths photographing our homes, hoarding our data and “stealing” our wedding and vacation photos held to a different standard than the Bürgeramt. No idea. My far-flung theories range from a general skepticism of corporate America to a capitalizing desire to have a piece of the cash pie to a more socialist acceptance of government meddling. But the argument I so often hear: “our history is rife with the abuse of the private sphere”, is hard to swallow. Especially following my visit from an intimidating, badge-toting fee collector.

For what it’s worth, I do value my privacy online. I am selective about what I share with my virtual community of friends and acquaintances. But given my firsthand experience, it’s been substantially less traumatizing to share with Zuck and Larry than it has been with the Bürgeramt.