What is a government ID number

Register modernizationOne number to find them all

When the uniform tax identification number was introduced in 2007 against the resistance of data protection officials, the then SPD finance minister Peer Steinbrück simply wiped away all criticism. It is a "constructed state of excitement in the summer break", assumed Steinbrück. Financial experts of the Union emphasized that there was no new rage on the part of the authorities to collect, the access to the number was strictly limited and the accusation that a transparent citizen was "not covered by anything" was created.

At the time, critics warned that the state could use the tax identification number as a personal identification number in the future. With the help of this, all data sets that the state collects about its citizens could be linked, was the fear.

And that is exactly what is supposed to happen now, almost 13 years later: The federal government is currently preparing a draft law that will be passed by the federal cabinet this summer. It is used to make the tax ID into a general personal identification number. That emerges from the answer to a small question from the Greens.

Constitutional concerns

The National Regulatory Control Council published an expert opinion (PDF) on the subject as early as 2017. With the modernization of the register, the state could save six billion euros per year, for citizens the new procedure would save time on administrative matters. Some people cheered - without looking at fundamental rights and data protection.

But the report also indicates that the introduction of a personal identification number is difficult from both a constitutional and a data protection perspective. The Regulatory Control Council refers to a study by the German University of Administrative Sciences in Speyer (PDF) on the subject.

The introduction of a personal identification number is problematic, among other things because of the census ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court and the possible violation of the fundamental right to informational self-determination. The ruling prohibits the state from linking personal data with an overarching identification number because of the possibility of creating a profile.

Earlier decisions of the court, such as the microcensus ruling of 1969, opposed the personal identification number. There it was said that it was contrary to human dignity to make people a mere object in the state.

It would be incompatible with human dignity if the state could claim the right to compulsorily register and catalog people in their entire personality, be it in the anonymity of a statistical survey, and thus make them one thing to treat that is accessible to an inventory in every respect

After the introduction of the tax ID, the then Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar warned in 2011 that the use of the tax ID would, contrary to all assertions, be "gradually expanded". The tax ID becomes a general personal identification number through the back door, which increases the risk of creating meaningful personality profiles.

The Austrian model would bring more data protection

Because of this history, too, the opinion of the Regulatory Control Council referred to the encrypted personal identification number system introduced by Austria. In this model, the actual, but secret, personal identification number is only available to the Independent Data Protection Authority. The other authorities use special personal codes for their specialist area, which restricts the spread of the actual code and prevents data from being simply merged. The Regulatory Control Council considers this model to be compatible with the Basic Law.

However, the federal government has opted for a much more invasive variant and wants to use the controversial tax identification number that has already been introduced as a personal identification number. The Federal Government calls this possible merging of data from its citizens: inside under a personal identification number euphemistically "cross-register identity management" - that may sound a bit more modern, but does not change the fact that the variant could be unconstitutional.

Interior minister relies on invasive model

The Federal Data Protection Officer (BfDI) opposes the current plans. Although he does not recommend a specific model, he rejects the "overall concept of a cross-administrative, unchangeable regulatory feature for identifying citizens, as is the basis for the modernization of registers outlined in the key points of the economic stimulus package" for constitutional and data protection reasons, said his spokesman Christof Stein towards netzpolitik.org with.

There are alternatives to which the BfDI has repeatedly pointed out in the previous coordination process. This includes the “area-specific identity marks”, thus similar to the Austrian model. This has a clear advantage for the Federal Data Protection Officer:

In the event of possible misuse, the data of a natural person from different registers could not be merged as easily as with the use of a cross-register identity code.

In the opinion of the Federal Data Protection Commissioner, the constitutional requirement of earmarking requires that the use of personal data is limited to the specific legally determined purpose and that there are corresponding prohibitions on disclosure and exploitation.

Federal data protection officer rejects previous planning

The Green domestic politician Konstantin von Notz, who made the small question, also sees it that way. He criticized netzpolitik.org for the fact that the Federal Ministry of the Interior, contrary to scientific reports and legal and political concerns, even from its own ministry, wants to use the tax ID across administrative bodies. Adhering to this solution would be tantamount to an oath of disclosure, it was foreseeable "that sooner or later the whole thing will end up before the Federal Constitutional Court".

The planning is also rejected by the civil rights organization Digitale Gesellschaft e.V. whose board member Benjamin Bergemann says:

The plans of the federal government to introduce a uniform personal identification number are a fundamentally questionable paradigm shift. It is not for nothing that the pulling in of firewalls against a central personal identifier and the resulting potential for power and abuse is part of the foundation of data protection.

Reform planned for federal, state and local governments

Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry of the Interior is planning to modernize the registers of the federal, state and local governments - in other words, bringing together all levels. According to the plans, the transfer of data between two authorities should always go through a third party, which looks at the legality of the transfer. Citizens should be able to see in a "data cockpit" which authority has requested their data.

If the tax ID is actually used, “structural barriers are required to prevent a person's data from being merged across registers,” says the spokesman for the Federal Data Protection Commissioner (BfDI).

Data processing must already be limited to what is necessary for the respective purpose by technical means. Due to the further technical and organizational design, the risk of a complete consolidation and cataloging must be reduced to what is constitutionally necessary. The interventions in the right to informational self-determination envisaged in the previous planning did not meet these requirements, the BfDI continued.

So far, the federal government has wiped away such concerns about the project:

The existing legal regulations as to when an authority may have access to which data and for what purpose will not be expanded. The information stored in the decentralized registers is currently not brought together at a central point, rather the decentralized register management is retained.

That sounds reasonable at first. But we remember the beginning of the article. Once a structure has been introduced, its purposes and the powers of the authorities can be expanded after a few years, contrary to all assurances. This happens often enough, as experience shows. The tax ID itself is the best proof of this.

Update 7/15/2020:

In a paragraph one more sentence and the investigation "Legal limits of a personal or company code number in state registers" linked.

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About the author

Markus Reuter

Markus Reuter deals with the topics of digital rights, hate speech & censorship, fake news & social bots, right-wing extremists online, video surveillance, basic and civil rights and social movements. At netzpolitik.org since March 2016 as an editor. He can be reached at markus.reuter | ett | netzpolitik.org and on Twitter at @markusreuter_
Published 07/09/2020 at 3:50 PM