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:
- 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.
- Neighborhood. Almost all European countries have a similar policy, so Germany would stand out if it didn't keep these records.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.