The Dark Side of Power: German Corporate Spying Scandal Widens
Deutsche Telekom wasn't the only German company to use private investigators to spy on employees and journalists. At national railway Deutsche Bahn, national flag carrier airline Lufthansa and Deutsche Post, paranoid executives also stand accused of stepping over the line into spying.
For once, investigators at Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) didn't have far to go. In fact, the assignment didn't even require getting into their cars. All it took was a brisk walk to the stairwell or the elevator.
The German headquarters of Control Risks GmbH, one of the world's largest private security firms, is located only a few floors above the offices of the BKA's branch in Berlin's Treptow neighborhood. In the past, government detectives and their private industry counterparts even got together for the occasional social gathering on the roof deck shared by the two organizations, which offers a spectacular view of downtown Berlin across the Spree River.
The security professionals turned over a wealth of material to the BKA officials. But during their visit with their upstairs neighbors almost two weeks ago, the government agents were no longer interested in casual shoptalk, but rather in the role Control Risks may have played in the Deutsche Telekom wiretapping affair. The scandal has dominated the public debate in the worlds of business, politics and the media for more than two weeks.
The affair is already being described in Berlin as the "epitome of data treachery," and as a scandal on par with the 1962 SPIEGEL affair. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) has been asked to review the government's data storage guidelines. And Matthias Kurth, president of the Federal Network Agency, the regulatory office for telecommunications and postal services, has demanded that Deutsche Telekom conduct a speedy review of its internal weaknesses.
Spying on Journalists and Board Members
For years, Deutsche Telekom hired outside companies to spy on journalists and members of its own supervisory board, hoping to uncover internal leaks. But how far, in fact, does the scandal extend: just into Telekom's own past, or possibly into the sphere of influence of other major corporations that may have availed themselves of similar services and dirty tricks?
It is already clear that Telekom also hired Control Risks, which in turn subcontracted some of its assignments to a company called Desa. Desa, which is run by two former informants for the East German secret police, the Stasi, has also completed assignments for other prominent clients.
Moreover, it is clear that Control Risks worked for other German corporations, like Lufthansa and Deutsche Post. And, more recently, it was revealed that the two security firms were not the only ones that investigated a journalist from the newspaper Financial Times Deutschland (FTD).
In 2001, Lufthansa set its sights on the man, who had written damaging articles about the company in the past. In this case, however, it was not telephone records that were abused, as they had been in the Deutsche Telekom scandal. Instead, the airline used its passenger data for the journalist, one of its frequent fliers, to trace his connections to members of its own supervisory board. The FTD journalist had taken a Lufthansa flight to Hamburg, where he had met his informant in a Lufthansa airport lounge, of all places. Ultimately, he proved to have a touch of bad luck.
The company -- long since under new leadership, namely that of CEO Wolfgang Mayrhuber -- has told SPIEGEL that the allegations are indeed correct, but also notes that flight data does not enjoy the same internal protections as telephone records, for example. "We did nothing illegal," a spokesman insists.
A Bermuda Rectangle
First Telekom, then Deutsche Post, and now Lufthansa. But there is more to the story.
Telekom wasn't the only client for which Network Deutschland, a small Berlin consulting firm, compared and matched up the telephone records of supervisory board members and journalists, the activity that triggered the scandal in the first place. From 1998 onward, Deutsche Bahn awarded the company 43 contracts, worth a total of about 800,000 ($1.25 million). But unlike Telekom the spying activities conducted at Deutsche Bahn are not considered illegal.
The national railway company was apparently interested solely in fighting corruption. As an example, a few years ago it looked into all contacts between outside suppliers and its own employees.
Nevertheless, there are odd connections in the Bermuda rectangle formed by giants Telekom, Deutsche Post, Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn. In 2001, after Deutsche Post had fired its top in-house lawyer in the wake of a wiretapping affair, he turned up, miraculously enough, at a Lufthansa subsidiary. Two years ago, the head of security at Lufthansa left the company for a job at Deutsche Post.
Were the two former state-owned corporations, Lufthansa and Deutsche Post, somehow in collusion with Telekom and Deutsche Bahn, the last two major businesses in which the federal government still holds a significant stake? What unbelievably detailed data profiles could have been culled from the rail and flight information, telephone records, invoice data and mail correspondence of millions upon millions of customers, especially if the four companies had already been so fond of doing their own spying?
Although conspiracy theories abound, the verifiable facts are still relatively straightforward. So far the list of suspects at the public prosecutor's office in Bonn includes eight current and former Telekom employees, including former Chairman Kai-Uwe Ricke and former Supervisory Board Chairman Klaus Zumwinkel, who have since left the company and deny all guilt.
The BKA is currently sifting through two truckloads full of seized Telekom files, documents and computers. The analysis could take months. Meanwhile, prosecutors are not even sure whether the scandal will remain limited to Deutsche Telekom, or whether their efforts will ultimately uncover a concerted effort.
Worst of all is the fact that the public is now willing to believe a lot of things. After a string of scandals -- the sleaze and slush fund affairs at Volkswagen, corruption scandals at electronics and engineering giant Siemens, allegations that discount supermarket chain Lidl spied on employees and an investigation of Zumwinkel for possible tax fraud -- the latest evidence of corporate malfeasance merely heightens the damage to German industry's image.
- Part 1: German Corporate Spying Scandal Widens
- Part 2: Rampant Fear in the Corporate World
© DER SPIEGEL 24/2008
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