Dispute over mobile phone data: mobile operators against privacy advocates


Status: 01/24/2022 06:06 a.m

The data protection officers of the federal and state governments have declared the practice inadmissible – nevertheless, mobile phone operators pass on customer data to credit agencies. Some of the companies are even considering suing the privacy advocates.

By Peter Hornung and Nils Wischmeyer, NDR

According to research by German mobile operators Ed and “Süddeutsche Zeitung” (SZ) apparently continue to pass on contract data from mobile phone customers to credit agencies such as Schufa so that they can evaluate them. Vodafone, Telefónica & Co. are thus opposed to a decision by the data protection officers of the federal and state governments last September, who had declared this practice inadmissible. According to the VATM industry association, the mobile phone companies are also examining a lawsuit against the data protection officer’s decision.

Peter Horning
ARD Studio New Delhi

The dispute is now threatening to escalate because, according to the research, the Federal Association of Consumers (VZBV) is also taking the clauses on data transfer to court. In addition, individual consumer centers are preparing injunctions against telecommunications providers.

The data in question is not information about telephone calls made, but information, for example, on the conclusion of a contract, the duration of a contract and a change of contract. This information was mainly used to prevent fraud, as the companies had repeatedly emphasized in the past.

Data used to analyze solvency

Only last November, when asked by the credit agencies Ed and SZ publicly admitted for the first time that the information is also a coveted commodity for another reason: the solvency of consumers can also be determined on the basis of such mobile phone contract data. A “largely non-transparent” procedure, criticize the consumer advocates from the VZBV and call for binding quality standards for such evaluations. The credit bureaus justified their actions by saying that they had little or no data on certain groups, such as young adults and migrants.

It is about “large amounts of data about normal everyday processes in business life” that would be “collected and processed” without cause, according to the decision of the data protection officers in September 2021. Credit agencies have only been allowed to use such data since the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in May 2018 save if the data subject has given their express consent. But the mobile phone providers would first have to obtain this from their customers – and according to the NRW data protection supervisory authority, they have largely refrained from doing so for three years “because they shied away from the high requirements for consent”.

Mobile operators want to continue to resist

Vodafone, Telefónica & Co. want to continue to oppose the decision of the supervisory authorities. According to the telecommunications industry association VATM, the “legal opinion of the supervisory authorities” is not shared. The data protection officers wrongly give the interests of the customers priority over the interests of the company, according to the accusation from the companies.

“We are currently examining – together with the credit agencies and the association ‘Die Wirtschaftsauskunfteien’ – the possibilities of having the decision of the data protection conference legally reviewed,” said the VATM, which includes Vodafone and Telefónica O2. On the other hand, Deutsche Telekom, which is not a member of the association, announced that it did not want to take legal action against the decision – even if it did not share the view of data protection officers either. They are “currently working on an alternative solution based on consent.”

The Federal Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber emphasized that the decision of the data protection conference was clear. There is no legal basis for storing mobile phone contract data. He is now looking for a conversation with the cell phone providers.


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