The absurdity of Germany's privacy obsession

Students are advised against using Berlin's own digital education platform and prohibited from using external applications. Paper worksheets, really?

Doreen Eccarius just wants a solution.
Doreen Eccarius just wants a solution.Sabine Gudath

Berlin-It all started during the first lockdown when Brodowin elementary in Lichtenberg needed a suitable digital learning platform. The school at first chose Lernraum Berlin, the city's own online platform. But teachers were concerned with rumours that Maja Smoltczyk, Berlin's data privacy commissioner, wasn't happy with the application. A teacher suggested working with other tools: Padlet and Microsoft Teams. Most teachers, parents and students were impressed.

But they didn't get approval from Padlet. And although most parents consented to the use of Teams, one father refused, concerned that his children's data would end up in the hands of big American companies, and who knows what they would do with it. He complained to data protection authorites and commissioner Smoltczyk looked into it and gave the school a formal warning.

Brodowin principal Doreen Eccarius then put the school's digital efforts on the backburner.

But now one class is in corona quarantine and children can only work with paper copies. Parents have to stop by the secretary's office to pick up the worksheets for their children. Parents had been communicating with teachers via phone but that's been stopped too since teachers were using their their private mobiles.

Eccarius and Eggers. 
Eccarius and Eggers. Sabine Gudath

"Some colleagues were now also worried that they were inadvertently handing over private student information to unauthorised people," says Eccarius. Most of the communication now runs through a landline in the school office.

Parents are not happy.

"We just keep thinking that the school could be closed again at any time because of corona. And then our children will be left working from copies," says André Eggert, the school's parent representative.

Eccarius and Brodowin are trapped in a digital purgatory and she wants to force a fundamental political decision on data protection at Berlin schools. The education administration and the data protection commissioner say they're in "constructive talks".

Eccarius has her doubts: "Some say this, others say that. They have to finally come together and get on the same page. But somehow they can't do that."

The principal would like a list of learning platforms recommended by both sides, something that has never existed. Data privacy commissioner Smoltczyk last summer highlighted the issues with Lernraum Berlin but says the app is improving: "Even if not all measures have been implemented yet, Lernraum is on the right track," she replied to a written question from the Berliner Zeitung.

Smoltczyk advises against using Teams: "Microsoft reserves the right in the usage agreement to use personal information for its own purposes. In addition, since the European Court of Justice's 'Schrems II' ruling, transferring data into the US is seen as extremely problematic in data protection terms."

But many schools work with Teams anyway. It's no secret. Smoltczyk doesn't forbid it but if a parent suddenly complains, she has to act and issue a warning.

One parent thinks that we, the school management, were wrong.

Dorreen Eccarius

Principal Eccarius prefers the simplicity and intuitiveness of Teams and says Lernraum is a bit "confusing". But what she wants most is legal clarity so she would bite the bullet and switch to Lernraum Berlin if education officials told her to.

But that in itself is a contradiction: the Berlin government relies on professional tools like Teams, rather than Lernraum Berlin. Shouldn't officials be worried about their data ending up with the NSA?

"Kids don't use their real names when they register with Teams. And most parents don't care if any data from their children ends up in America," Eccarius says. "But one parent thinks that we, the school management, were wrong and has been creating a headache for us."

Eccarius has written to the mayor, to Berlin's education minister and the federal education minister in hopes of forcing a decision. 

The situation is a bad mixture of double standards and paranoia. And a lack of forethought.