The World from Berlin: German Rail Spying 'Enough to Make You Cringe'

On Wednesday, the German rail spying scandal went from run-of-the-mill to flabbergasting: 173,000 -- and not 1,000 -- employees were spied on. Politicians and the public are outraged, and commentators predict that the Deutsche Bahn CEO will take the fall.

Two weeks ago, a leading German news magazine revealed that Deutsche Bahn had spied on 1,000 employees. Although shocking, the news was merely enough to put the German national rail operator in the company of German corporations such as Lidl, Lufthansaand Telekom-- all recently outted for spying on either journalists or their own employees.

The Deutsche Bahn scandal regarding spying on employees has grown to include a majority of its employees.
DDP

The Deutsche Bahn scandal regarding spying on employees has grown to include a majority of its employees.

On Wednesday, however, the scandal got a whole lot bigger when the company's anti-corruption officer, Wolfgang Schaupensteiner, told the Transport Committee in the German parliament that the company spied on 173,000 of its total of approximately 240,000 employees.

According to the investigative report in Stern, the company had hired Network Deutschland GmbH in 2002 and 2003 to snoop on employees as part of an effort to uncover possible corruption within the company. Wednesday's news revealed that the 173,000 had been part of a massive internal investigation codenamed "Babylon," which discovered 300 abnormalities of which approximately 100 pointed toward possible instances of corruption.

The scandal has drawn the ire of many German politicians. Uwe Beckmeyer, a specialist for transportation issues with the Social Democrats, told the online edition of Stern: "This is unbelievable. In this case, things have emerged from the abyss that have really astonished me. The fight against corruption is important; but, in this case, a deliberate order was made to cast blanket suspicion."

German commentators show little understanding for the company's actions. Many predict that Hartmut Mehdorn, Deutsche Bahn's pugnacious CEO, will take the fall for the widening scandal.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The measure of suspicion the provided the foundation for Deutsche Bahn's spying activities surpasses any state investigation. Potential offenders were not looked for based on certain offenses. Instead, it was a collective examination of 173,000 employees, thousands and thousands of whom had nothing to do with business operations. Megalomania among security employees is not enough to explain the scale of such an incident.... The activities took place in 2002 and 2003. That was the period in which Hartmut Mehdorn, the CEO of Deutsche Bahn appointed by then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was so sure of his position that he imagined that 'no one can touch me.' That the scandal remained secret despite so many people knowing about it also indicates that the decision was made at the highest level.... Has Mehdorn outlived his usefulness?"

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Deutsche Bahn's tactic of only admitting that which can no longer be denied has a ruinous effect. Following initial reports of a spying scandal half a year ago, the company insisted it was looking for lost locomotives and it spoke about investigations in 43 cases. Then, a week ago, the company admitted that it had spied on more than 1,000 employees at the management level. Such a policy of releasing information by Bahn head Hartmut Mehdron has resulted in the frittering away of his final bit of credibility."

"How much more china does Mehdorn have to break before the federal government, German rail's owner, gets rid of him? There is practically no one left with whom Mehdorn has not locked horns, whether it's the unions, the railway industry, or his boss, Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee. Now that Deutsche Bahn has spied on its own employees, it's time for the government to really think about whether it is acceptable to have Mehdorn at the helm of such an important state-owned company."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Corruption potentially always plays a role in companies that award contracts worth billions year after year. The company is obliged to do something to combat it -- as long as it does so in good faith."

"But the strategy used by Deutsche Bahn to combat the risk is unacceptable to employees and the public.... The numbers themselves are unbelievable and enough to make you cringe. Apart from that, this screening clearly communicates how little trust the Bahn has in its employees -- the blanket investigation was carried out without concrete grounds for suspicion. And you can add to that the fact that the company didn't think it was necessary to inform those affected that they had been investigated."

"The case of Lidl and Telekom have already shown how far companies have gone with secret spying and transgressing boundaries without much thought. Until recently, Deutsche Bahn had only admitted to having investigated around 1,000 people at the management level (and their spouses). The state-owned company is now obligated to put everything on the table -- of its own accord and all at once."

-- Josh Ward; 1:30 p.m. CET

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