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Analysis: Will Germans learn from Israel how to live under the threat of terror?

German police stand guard as forensic experts collect evidence at the site of the knife attack Grafing train station on May 10, 2016
Andreas Gebert (dpa/AFP)
Valuing privacy more than most, experts disagree if Germans would accept regular searches of their belongings

A trade-off, it's called - the willingness to give up some privacy for the sake of more security. In Germany, proponents of privacy and data protection have often tipped the scales in their favor, strongly opposing too invasive measures. But recent events are forcing some to reevaluate their priorities, and even to look to Israel for guidance.

"For Israelis, it is understandable to sacrifice small freedoms in the shadow of the daily threat of terrorism," explained an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, published following the Brussels attacks and titled "What Europe can learn from Israel."

"Without complaint, they open their bags in front of every shopping mall, let their pockets be searched at the entrance to the cinema, and take into account occasional long queues in front of Tel Aviv's international Ben Gurion Airport. Israelis have realized," suggested the writer, "that a little less privacy can bring them a bit more security."

"We all have to adjust and be willing to give up some convenient habits," agreed another journalist, Claus Strunz, pointing out that Germans are now too living in "Israeli circumstances," sharing the fear of terror attacks.

In his segment for channel SAT1's morning program, that was later widely discussed on social media, he urged the adoption of the Israeli approach and more investment in security forces and border control, further empowering prosecutors and intelligence services and even setting up checkpoints in public places.

Also the recent attack in Munich, where Tuesday a man was stabbed to death and three others were injured, some claim might have been prevented if a security guard at the entrance to the train station had found the ten centimeter knife hidden in the suspect's bag.

Christof Stache (AFP/File)

Germans ready to adopt the Israeli way?

But experts disagree whether Germans would accept a reality in which their belongings are regularly searched. "This might be understandable in some cases on a temporary basis, following a specific alert, but otherwise - people will simply stop going to those places," suggested Marit Hansen, Data Protection Commissioner of Schleswig-Holstein.

Hansen, whose office receives dozens of complaints on a daily basis, found that Germans tend to value their privacy higher than in other countries, still remembering life in a surveillance state under the Nazis and the East German regime.

"Introducing such security checks would also mean that armed guards would be standing in the street - which might seem normal in Israel, but Germans would immediately think they are at risk," she cautioned. "And if people with a migration background will have to open their bags more often or be searched more thoroughly, this discrimination will not be accepted."

"It is also possible in extreme situations that this could lead to bomb attacks targeting the queues that will accumulate at these checkpoints, like in Iraq," reminded Dr. Alexander Dix, Vice-Chair of the European Academy for Freedom of Information and Data Protection. Nevertheless, he doesn't rule out that such measures could be introduced in Germany, perhaps even in the next year or two.

In the past, following several knife attacks on Berlin's public transportation system, politicians called for additional video surveillance, thinking this would deter offenders, "but of course this was wrong," noted Dix, the former State Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in Brandenburg and Berlin.

Nowadays, terror attacks on European soil evoke almost ritualistic debates regarding the expansion of German technological surveillance, which also go in the wrong direction, in Dix's opinion. "Some people argue that collecting more data would allow us to look into the hearts and minds of others and control them. That is erroneous. More offline, low-tech and intelligent measures are at least as important."

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Surveilling a click or a purse?

The reluctance to be controlled by the police or searched in the street could be more a matter of German tradition than a privacy issue, suggested Dix. But he too admits to have noticed a greater willingness to accept preventive security checks, as a response to the increased terror threat. This openness, however, has yet to be translated to a serious public debate.

"One reason is that politicians very often think that physical controls are seen as more intrusive," he explained, "and they believe, incorrectly in my opinion, that people don't mind being surveilled while they surf the internet or chat on the phone. But these hidden measures are as invasive as open and limited checks, and it could be that Germans would get used to the idea of having someone look into their handbag, easier than to the notion that their every click is registered and monitored."

The realization of the extent of the electronic surveillance - now spreading particularly among young generation Germans - together with the eventual acknowledgment of the ineffectiveness of such measures, could lead to a greater preference towards physical security measures, believes Dix, but in the end, a final push will be needed.

"Until something very bad happens," he predicted, "politicians will be reluctant to implement such measures."

Polina Garaev is i24news' correspondent in Germany.

Comments

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On a professional and political Level the Cooperation will continue. But the Public opinion will grow, that Israel is to blame for the Terror

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