Page last updated at 09:19 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Deutsche Bahn shaken by spying scandal

By Tristana Moore
BBC Berlin correspondent

Hartmut Mehdorn, chief executive, Deutsche Bahn
Critics want Deutsche Bahn chief Hartmut Mehdorn to resign

Strong winds lash the towering headquarters of Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national rail operator. Inside an even harsher storm is brewing.

Deutsche Bahn is in deep trouble. Not only has the state-owned operator had to postpone a recent planned part-privatisation because of the financial crisis. Now it is also accused of spying on its own staff.

"I am so angry, I still can't believe that they were spying on their workers for so many years," says one employee, who does not want to be identified, as he nervously looks around at the crowd outside the underground station at Potsdamer Platz.

Although people's faces were concealed by large woollen hats and scarves, it seemed as if he was scared that someone would recognise him.

"Come around the corner, I can talk better there," he says in a flustered voice as he rests his shoulder against a wall.

"I have worked at this company for the past 30 years, and I've never experienced anything like this before. They spied on workers and their relatives, and the managers thought they could get away with it.

"It's outrageous. This had nothing to do with fighting corruption, they just wanted to keep an eye on all the workers here."

Secret agents

The scandal just will not go away.

Duesseldorf train station
The German people have been shocked by Deutsche Bahn's behaviour

German members of parliament from across the political spectrum are baying for blood and newspaper commentators are having a field day.

"The Bahn has lost track of reality," ran one headline.

The affair has all the ingredients of a James Bond film.

It involves covert surveillance operations that were given exotic code names such as "Babylon", "Traviata" or "Prometheus" as well as a private detective agency.

Deutsche Bahn has admitted that it conducted a surveillance operation on its staff on five separate occasions, dating back to 1998.

The official aim of the vetting scheme was to root out corruption.

Investigators and a Berlin detective agency were hired to carry out the job.

Extensive surveillance

In a country with a history of state surveillance, such as under the Nazis and communist East Germany, it is hardly surprising that Germans were shocked by the latest revelations.

They were stupid and clumsy
Deutsche Bahn employee

Deutsche Bahn has submitted a 37-page report to the German government and parliament.

In the report, the Bahn admits that three major screenings took place in 1998, 2002/3 and 2005/6.

The names, addresses, telephone numbers and bank details of staff were compared with those of suppliers to detect possible illicit transactions.

Under the codename "Project Babylon", some 173,000 employees of Deutsche Bahn were vetted from 2002/3 and their personal details were compared with 80,000 suppliers.

On top of this, Deutsche Bahn has now acknowledged that it screened its managers and their relatives on two other occasions, in 2003/4 and 2005-6, under the so-called "Project Squirrel."

Not informed

Many Bahn employees feel disillusioned with the company.

This had nothing to do with fighting corruption, you don't have to monitor staff to do that
Klaus-Dieter Hommel, GDBA trade union

"I donīt feel happy about working here," says one.

"Of course, the top managers knew what was going on. It's totally unacceptable.

"They were stupid and clumsy."

The unravelling of Deutsche Bahn's activities has turned into the biggest scandal in the company's history and the atmosphere within the company is said to be "highly tense".

The spying scandal is threatening to topple the truculent chief executive, Hartmut Mehdorn.

Employee representatives are furious, insisting they were not informed of the surveillance operation.

"I'm shocked and disgusted at the company culture here," says Klaus-Dieter Hommel, from the GDBA trade union, shaking his head.

"Did they think that this kind of surveillance was normal? They totally ignored workers' rights and their privacy.

"This had nothing to do with fighting corruption, you don't have to monitor staff to do that."

Raises questions

Under increasing pressure from the unions, Mr Mehdorn finally sent a letter to Deutsche Bahn employees apologising for giving investigators access to personal data.

It's still not clear who exactly was responsible
Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee

But his belated apology was quickly dismissed by parliamentarians.

Horst Friedrich, the transport spokesman for the liberal FDP party, has condemned the Bahn's handling of the affair as "salami tactics" insisting "the government must clear up this issue".

Even Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee says he is not satisfied with Deutsche Bahn's report.

"It raises more questions than it answers," he says, looking ashen-faced and stunned after emerging from a parliamentary transport commission meeting.

"It's still not clear who exactly was responsible."

Deutsche Bahn's senior managers insist they were not informed about what was going on.

But the unions remain sceptical and there are now growing calls for Mr Mehdorn to step down, though Chancellor Angela Merkel is standing by him.

Legal or illegal?

Berlin's data protection commissioner and prosecutors are currently conducting an investigation into the affair over any breaches of data protection.

Local S-Bahn train carriage at Berlin railway station
The railway operator insists it has not broken the law

Although there's talk of a legal "grey area", some lawyers are convinced that Deutsche Bahn's actions were illegal.

"This does not correspond with German law," says Monika Birnbaum, an employment lawyer at the firm, Schwarz Kelwing Wicke Westpfahl.

"Screening the private data of employees and comparing this with the data of supplier companies is in accordance with German data protection law only if the employees themselves and the workers' council agree with this beforehand.

"As far as we know, these criteria were not fulfilled, so the screening was contrary to labour law and data protection law."

But the railway operator insists the practices were legal, although there is a caveat.

"According to what we know, the screening was legal," a spokesman for Deutsche Bahn says.

"The screening was carried out to fight corruption.

"However, the question does arise as to whether German data protection law was properly recognised especially because no information was forwarded to the supervisory board and to employee representatives."

Mr Mehdorn has been invited by MPs to give evidence at the German parliament's transport commission on 4 March. He should expect a hostile reception.

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