German court rules in favour of scholar Dr. Anna Younes in digital surveillance case

On 6 May 2022, the Berlin District Court upheld Dr. Younes’ claims and ordered VDK – the German state-funded organisation that legally represents RIAS Berlin and MBR – to give Anna Younes access to data that the two civil society organisations had gathered on her and passed on to others. The information released so far reveals that RIAS and MBR have been collecting people’s personal data based on their “positions on Israel and BDS.”

In November 2019, RIAS and MBR created a secret dossier which depicted Dr. Younes as an anti-Jewish racist, terrorist sympathiser and sexist. The dossier was then sent to Katina Schubert, the head of the political party Die Linke/The Left in Berlin. This resulted in Dr. Younes’ exclusion from a public event organised by the party. This conduct infringed upon Dr. Younes’ right to privacy, freedom of expression, and academic freedom. RIAS/MBR’s actions amount to digital surveillance.

In March 2020, Dr. Younes, with the support of her lawyer and the ELSC, requested RIAS provide access to her personal data, based on data rights under EU Data Protection Law. RIAS/MBR refused. Therefore, she brought her case to the Berlin Data Protection Authority (DPA), and then to court. Additionally, she had to file two lawsuits at the beginning of April 2022, due to the non-processing of her case by the DPA.  

However, it was only after a public media campaign was launched and more than 1,000 scholars, organisations, artists, journalists and activists supported her, that the DPA finally acknowledged Dr. Younes’ right to access her data. On 2 May 2022, RIAS/MBR withdrew their original position that Dr. Younes had no right to access her data, released the secret dossier previously disseminated and finally acknowledged the merits of her claim. A few days later, the court also handed down its decision in favour of Dr. Younes.

Most importantly, RIAS/MBR admitted to collecting data on, “Dr. Younes’ positions on Israel and the BDS movement.” The latter is a classification that most likely derives from MBR/RIAS’ use of the contested “IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism”.

Dr. Anna Younes and the ELSC welcome the decision of the District Court and the reconciliatory reaction of the DPA. The ELSC expects the DPA to acknowledge that RIAS and MBR illegally passed the secret dossier on to Katina Schubert, which led to a violation of Dr. Younes’ privacy rights – amongst other things.

Following this victory, Dr. Younes and her lawyer will request damages in court as RIAS/MBR prevented her from accessing her information for approximately two years. It also remains to be clarified whether RIAS and MBR have been storing further data other than those revealed in the disseminated dossier. 

“This is an important victory because organisations using the IHRA definition for the surveillance of Palestinian rights advocates will be required to provide access to the information they collect on individuals. We believe that this is not an isolated case and that there is a structural issue of profiling Palestinians and Palestinian rights advocates in Germany. This is what we intend to challenge further in court. This demeanour creates a chilling effect and limits democratic participation in public debate.” – Giovanni Fassina, Director of the ELSC.