German Covid vaccine officials play name game to comply with data privacy laws

German toddlers called Fritz or Adele could be invited for a Covid-19 vaccination while octogenarian Peters and Brigittes won’t, as an overzealous interpretation of data privacy laws in one state has forced officials to guess people’s ages from their first names.

Authorities in the northern German state of Lower Saxony claim legal hurdles blocked them from accessing official records when trying to send a written invitation for a vaccination appointment to all citizens aged over 80.

The state decided instead to use post office records, which it said met data protection requirements. But since the Deutsche Post database only partially includes dates of birth, officials have used people’s first names to estimate their age and “increase the chances of reaching the right recipients”, a spokesperson told the newspaper Bild.

“Therefore not all people in Lower Saxony who are older than 80 will receive a letter,” the health ministry of Lower Saxony conceded in a statement on its website.

Germany coronavirus cases

While names such as Hans, Franz and Agnes are associated with Germany’s pre-war generation, many old-fashioned names have undergone a revival and are also common among pre-teens.

Germany is known for its strict data privacy laws, but experts have disputed that the situation in Lower Saxony is due to officials trying to meet their legal requirements.

Official records are held by 5,283 local authorities across the country, with whom residents must register by law. State officials can then access these for specific purposes, such as to establish which children are of school age or to collect TV licence fees.

“I cannot see how local law in this case would prevent what is at any rate only a minimal access,” said Peter Schaar, a former federal commissioner for data protection. “We are looking at a very overzealous interpretation of the legal requirements,” he told the Guardian.

Lower Saxony’s own data protection officer on Friday issued a statement in which she criticised the state government’s approach.

“From a data protection perspective we do not see the need to use Deutsche Post’s database”, said Barbara Thiel. “Once again, a false impression was created that data protection is treated as the highest good and prevents necessary measures. Regrettably my office was not consulted on these questions by the social ministry.”

The southern state of Baden-Württemberg also decided to use post office records, but opted to contact all households with relevant information about the vaccination rollout irrespective of their age.


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