Germans and Registration

Conor Friedersdorf notes the German privacy paradox:

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.

The immediate tu quoque riposte most Germans would think of: 'If Americans are so privacy-conscious that they would reject a registration law or government ID card, why is it they allow private companies such as Facebook, Google Street View, credit-rating agencies, etc. so much power over their lives?' Another thing that shocks Europeans is that there are no protections for your reputation if you become involved with the criminal justice system. Suspects are identified by name and address as soon as they're booked. In fact, as the New York Times recently noted, there are websites whose sole purpose is to collect mugshots (like the one above), publish them online, and charge victims hundreds of dollars to remove them later. Even if all charges against you are later dropped, the fact that you were once arrested can remain public knowledge to anyone, anywhere for the rest of your life. This could never happen to an ordinary citizen in Germany.

But on to the German privacy paradox. Why are Germans so nonchalant about informing the authorities where they live? A few hypotheses:

  1. Path-dependency. It's been going on for all of living memory, so nobody thinks to question it. The U.S. census is similar — the Constitution has required one every 10 years for all of American history, so everyone except a tiny radical fringe just accepts it.
  2. Neighborhood. Almost all European countries have a similar policy, so Germany would stand out if it didn't keep these records.
  3. Staatsvertrauen. Germans have a high level of trust in their civil servants and public officials, so they simply don't envision that these data will be abused. They are much more concerned about private companies collecting information on them, which explains the controversy when some German local governments considered giving private firms access (g) to registry data. The odd thing, though, is that during the Nazi era and in East Germany the citizen residence registries (as well as the 1933 census) were abused (for instance, registry data was one of the sources for the 'Jew registry' (g) that enabled the Nazis to track down almost all Jewish citizens), but somehow that hasn't tainted residence registries in the German historical consciousness.
  4. Citizens benefit. Germany showers its citizens with cash and benefits. Parents get money for having children, the state subsidizes mortages, there's a meagre but still substantial permanent welfare scheme, etc. Although these benefits are now done mostly by bank transfer, the government still wants your address, since some of the benefits are calculated based on, e.g., how large your apartment is or what the living expenses in your area are.
  5. City planning. Germany is one of the global leaders in urban planning, and many of its cities are some of the best-planned in the world. Having a good base of information about what sort of people live where helps in this.

Those are a few reasons I can think of off the top of my head, but none of these explains why Germans would accept mandatory registration but fear a census. That, I think, is just a partially irrational distinction based on the fact that registration has always been a fact of life, but the census has not. 

9 thoughts on “Germans and Registration

  1. Let me add two points as seen from my German perspective:

    6. Comfort (very important): If you want to enter a contract in, say, Britain or any country without official, mandatory IDs you will most likely have to prove your identity by handing in a bunch of utility bills or whatnot. In Germany you just show your ID or use a system like PostIdent which is based on your ID as well. Companies trust that the data is correct.

    7. Voting: It always irritates me when I hear about Americans who have to register to vote. In Germany you register when you move some place and from then on it is clear whether, where and when you are allowed to vote. Everything else happens automatically: Your “Wahlschein” arrives in your mailbox before every election and that’s it. I guess technically, this also falls into the comfort-category. But it feels somewhat more official: Stating where I live so I can use my rights as a citizen in that particular community just feels natural (bringing is back to your point 1).

    I would see hardly an issue with this system as long as these requirements were enforced:

    1. The data collected has to remain “administration only”. Nobody besides the administration should have access and handing it out to private entities should be an absolute no-go, no matter how “noble” the cause.

    2. Data maintained should be minimal. Name, address and a few criteria that are required to identify the person are ok. It’s absolutely not okay to have your religion/church-association in the dataset. But the entanglement of church and state in Germany is a whole different story that’s in utter need of reform…


  2. I would live a census! It’d be good for Germany. What’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for me. Not the crucifixion thing tho.


  3. There are a couple of occasions, when you have to register your person and adress in the anglosaxon countries – elections are the first one, that comes to my mind. Those are covered by the german system, so having your place of living confirmed once spares you other times, you’ll have to or will want to hand it out.
    As I did not experience the ’87 census, I can only speak from my experiences of the more recent one 2011. What was seen as a problem by many participants in there, were some facts demanded beyond the number of habitants; heritage for one, or that access to your home would be mandatory if you did not decide to answer by post (adding up with the NPD asking its members to volunteer and gather informations for other purposes that way).

    Otherwise, I’d say, your first reason named is the most likely. We’re just used to it like it is and can hardly imagine how and why to change it.


  4. Quote Martin: Voting: It always irritates me when I hear about Americans who have to register to vote

    Me too! And, Andrew, please answer: why is such a “voting register” less of an intrusion into privacy than the general register (as in Germany)? Don’t you have to inform the voting registry authorities where you live, and furnish proof that you reside in the voting district (otherwise what would stop people to register for voting in different districts?). And then the risk that the American voting registries play fast and loose with the collected data is basically the same as in Germany.


  5. Martin wrote: Voting: It always irritates me when I hear about Americans who have to register to vote.
    Do you really mean “irritating”? Beware of the subtle difference between German/English irritierend/irritating.

    I would like to add two points to Mr. Hammels list:
    a) The municipal resident registration data is stored locally only. There is no central registry at the federal or state level. That hinders abuse of the system.
    b) The populace on the whole is ignorant regarding abuse potential of registration. Data protection / privacy is an exclusive topic of the educated bracket of society.

    It is easy to “opt-out” of the system by the way: At the office where you are currently registered, de-register and say you will stay on the seas for en extended period of time. The system has lost you then.


  6. Except that the Data in fact is very faulty….. The recent census has shown that people don’t keep their registration up to date…

    Anyway: The whole wonder that Americans show about the registration requirement is unfathomable to me anyway: Everybody in the US drives a car… So he has his residency registered with a !!!!!FEDERAL!!!!!! Agency. Yes! Not your local community in the sticks where you directly vote even for your coroner… But the !!DEVIL!! incarnate in Washington. The false priest… The antichrist.

    Additionaly law enforecement has easy access to your credit-card data… I am sure that the American state has a better grasp of where you live or are at anytime than the German.

    The registration system is nowadays poorly kept, after law changes removed most sanctions. A fact exposed by the census.


  7. You can get “off the record” by the process cuneiform describes. But I believe that one will not be able to vote then (maybe it is possible in the way it is for Germans living abroad) and it will be hard to collect any unemployment benefits or welfare.
    Also in principle your landlord should check that you are registered. Without a valid ID and/or certificate of registration you will not be able to get a library card and may have problems to claim parcels that were to be delivered to you, but ended up at the post office.


  8. From a descriptive point of view, as to whether most Germans are fine with the status quo, your #s 1 and 3 are spot-on and sufficient, I suppose.

    From a logical point of view, though, there is no contradiction at all between accepting the Meldewesen and protecting one’s privacy. Who really thinks that a functioning government – let’s ignore intelligence and police agencies for now – does not know where you live? I yet have to meet that person. At the very latest when you gain taxable income (not really an excentric activity) and chose not to commit any crime, you will need to confess that you actually exist and live somewhere. This is quite obvious, and I haven’t met an American or Brit who doubts this simple mechanism.

    I do think, however, that the staunch statement “my address is not the government’s business” is something very positive, as it can serve as a symbol for setting up clear boundaries against government intrusion. If you understand it right, it can be an anchor to remind you that you shouldn’t be ready to provide much more detailed information without even questioning it.
    However, a symbol understood only literally is a very dangerous thing. Claiming that you could keep your address secret legally – if you are ready to have no work, no bank account or credit card, no drivers licence and never buy an alcoholic beverage -, and at the same time revealing your whole life to an internet platform is not only ridiculous and pathetic, it may prove a threat to social freedom in general.


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