The World from Berlin: Telekom Spying Accusations 'an Enormous Scandal'

There has been no shortage of scandals in German businesses lately. But the spying allegations against Deutsche Telekom, say commentators, may be the biggest and most appalling yet.

Dark days at Deutsche Telekom after the spying revelations.
DDP

Dark days at Deutsche Telekom after the spying revelations.

Germany's former telecom monopoly Deutsche Telekom has been hit by a spying scandal after the emergence of allegations that it scrutinized the details of employees' and journalists' calls in a bid to track down a leak.

The company, which is one third owned by the German federal government, confirmed allegations published in SPIEGEL that an outside firm had been hired to go through the details of hundreds of thousands of calls made by senior executives and business journalists in 2005 and 2006. It denied that there had been any eavesdropping on conversations, but admitted that the details of who phoned whom were tracked.

According to SPIEGEL, "Operation Clipper" and "Operation Rheingold" were set up to identify sources of leaks of sensitive information to financial journalists.

CEO Rene Obermann, who was not at the helm during the period in question, said on Saturday that the company had reported the case to state prosecutors on May 14. Telekom has also hired a law firm to carry out an investigation of the matter.

On Monday, Obermann told mass circulation paper Bild that: "The current accusations, if they are confirmed, are contrary to our understanding of data protection." He added that "tough consequences would have to be drawn" if any misconduct was confirmed.

The news comes hot on the heels of a scandal involving Lidl, the German supermarket chain, which reportedly spied on its staff using hidden cameras.

German commentators on Monday are appalled at the prospect that one of the country's biggest companies could have been involved in spying on its employees and customers.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Naturally every company has the right to take action if internal information is leaking to outsiders. A public company like Telekom is in fact obliged to do this regarding any data relevant to the stock market."

"However, Telekom is now being accused of not only spying on its employees but also its customers -- on calls made by journalists and members of the company's supervisory board who used the Telekom network for their work and also for their private communications."

Rene Obermann, CEO of Telekom, is scrambling to deal with the fall out.
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Rene Obermann, CEO of Telekom, is scrambling to deal with the fall out.

"The company now has to clarify, as quickly as possible, what really happened. If customer data was really abused, then Telekom will not only have legal problems. They run the risk of a massive loss of confidence among customers, who up until now assumed that a phone call could be just as discrete as a private conversation in person. It could end up feeling this damage to its image on the stock market."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"No one would let a crime syndicate run a telephone company. There would be the justifiable fear that the hoodlums would use the telephone company to spy on customers for criminal purposes."

"Now in the case of Telekom it looks like things were the other way around: A traditional telephone company discovers that they can use information entrusted to it about the telephone habits of its customers for its own purposes. If it is true that Telekom, in order to find a leak in the company, really ordered data on calls by journalists and members of the supervisory board to be assessed, then that is an enormous scandal."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The dimensions of the spying affair look like they may eclipse all the negative news from the world of big business. Even the corruption at Siemens and the spying at Lidl seem minor sins compared to the events at the Bonn company's headquarters."

"The spying on members of its own board and supervisory board … should cause an outcry. But in Telekom's case it seems to also concern a massive attack on the freedom of the press, one that has no precedent in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany."

"If these accusations turn out to be true, and at the moment this seems to be the case, then one can only speak of a quagmire."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Regardless of who was responsible, the damage to the company is immense. The affair shakes the very foundations of the principle of secrecy of telecommunications. The fundamental business of a telecommunications company is based on its customers' trust in the confidential handling of their telephone calls. This secrecy should only be broken by state investigators if there are serious suspicions that a crime has been committed."

"If Telekom has electronically compared hundreds of thousands of detailed call records then it will have not only seriously infringed upon this secrecy, but it will also have undermined customers' trust. Telekom must realize that this trust is essential to its business."

Siobhán Dowling, 12:30 p.m. CET

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