Police in German province illegally recorded service calls for years – report

© Philippe Put
Police authorities in the German province of Thuringia illegally recorded tens of thousands of calls with law enforcement without the other parties’ consent for some 17 years, public broadcaster MDR uncovered.

Thousands of service calls were recorded automatically from 1999 to July 2016 without the knowledge or consent of the conversation participants, to MDR THÜRINGEN. As stated in the confidential documents the broadcaster obtained, phone calls received by internal service phones in various police departments were recorded, including conversations with state prosecutors, lawyers, court officials, social workers, journalists and other persons. 

According to MDR, the recording was only stopped last month after it was unearthed, due to a complaint from a local prosecutor.

It is not clear what instructions police officials followed in 1999 to launch the practice. Nor is it clear how much data and how many people were recorded without their knowledge, or who decided which data to store and what information to get rid of.

The public prosecutor's office in the capital of Thuringia, Erfurt, said there were two active criminal complaints against the unveiled police practice. Thuringian Data Protection Supervisor Lutz Hasse has launched an investigation into the affair, although he claimed he did not suspect “a sinister purpose.” He also it was unclear if the wiretapping was an isolated problem or if it spread through the entire police system, adding that all of the illegally-recorded calls will have to be deleted.

The reaction to the scandal was quick, with both the opposition and the government coalition parties in the Thuringian Parliament slamming the alleged eavesdropping and recording practice as a “poisoned legacy”, “serious interference in the personal rights” of the people (CDU) and a “questionable practice” (SPD).

The leader of the Green party, Dirk Adams, told MDR that the whole affair was “in terms of data protection law, fully unacceptable.

It was known that the service telephone systems used by law enforcement in Thuringia have a recording function since 2013. Yet the Ministry of Interior declared at the time that this function had not been put into practice as is contradicts the law.

Only emergency calls can be legitimately automatically recorded in Germany, and are usually deleted after 180 days of storage.

German law enforcement does have a right to wiretap into telephone conversations without the person’s consent or knowledge, but only with a court order.

Commenting on the case, Interior Ministry spokesman Oliver Löhr phone conversations tend to be recorded by police shift supervisors, who get both emergency and non-emergency calls. According to Löhr, police in Thuringia apparently failed to make that difference. He stressed, however, that only administrators had access to the stored calls, while all other details will be known as the investigation proceeds.