Germans urge tougher laws after new privacy scandal

BERLIN (Reuters) - German politicians called for tougher privacy laws on Tuesday after officials revealed personal and financial information on millions of Germans was readily available for cash on the Internet.

The scandal over the illegal trading of bank account and phone data came just months after snooping cases at some major German corporations raised alarms.

“The data scandals unfortunately highlight how urgent this issue is,” said parliamentarian Sebastian Edathy from the Social Democrats (SPD), who share power with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).

“Parliament must ... find a quick response to these blatant cases of abuse,” Edathy, who chairs parliament’s internal affairs committee, told Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.

He said he would call a meeting of lawmakers and experts to assess tougher data protection laws after the summer break.

Data protection and privacy protection are sensitive issues in a country haunted by domestic spying by the Nazi Gestapo and communist East Germany’s Stasi secret police.

The new debate was triggered by reports that a call centre employee alerted authorities to a problem with his company’s data collection practices by handing over data on some 17,000 addresses and bank account details to a privacy protection office in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Prosecutors have launched an investigation.

On Monday, privacy officials also said they were able to buy 6 million pieces of personal data, including bank and phone details, undercover on the Internet for 850 euros ($1,248).

Officials have said the information seemed to have been stolen from lottery firms’ files or mobile phone contracts.

Germany’s liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the far-left Left party called for higher fines for data protection infringements.

Greens lawmaker Renate Kuenast said individuals must be able to know who has their details and what happens to them.

“These rights belong in the constitution,” Kuenast said.

Germany’s Interior Ministry has said it will consider whether to change the rules once the investigation into the Schlewsig-Holstein case had been completed.

Data protection questions have played a prominent role in Germany in past months, at a time when the government is trying to loosen privacy laws to help police fight terrorism and crime.

Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s biggest telecommunications firm, shocked clients earlier this year with revelations that it illegally monitored phone records in 2005 and discount retailer Lidl was investigated after accusations it was monitoring staff.

Reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich, editing by Madeline Chambers and Mary Gabriel