I get a call from a friend in Germany. He intends to spend a few days in Rome, he found the announcement of a Bed & Breakfast in Corso Trieste and wants to know if the area is nice. I suggested he should take a look at the street on Google street view. Ten minutes later he calls, enthusiastic. “Really nice, you see everything! Not even a house is covered by pixels!”
His amazement is understandable. Just take a test with any German city, for example Berlin, Bamberger Straße. Like Corso Trieste, it is a street inhabited by middle-upper class people, professionals and graduates. Exploring it with Google street view, however, is a business that is only half successful, because the vision is continually interrupted by buildings covered by pixels. The reason is simple: residents do not like it and have asked Google to make their home unrecognisable; in short, that their privacy is respected.
Those who live in Italy can make the same request, but almost no one uses this right. Depending on the point of view, we could say that Italians are much more relaxed, or much more distracted, when they touch their most intimate sphere, for which there is not even a specific Italian word, but they directly adopt the word privacy. Of course, even the beautiful country has its own Privacy Guarantor, but its office must settle far fewer cases than its German counterpart. We take the town of Gottasecca, in the province of Cuneo. It is a village of just 150 inhabitants, but a year ago the mayor thought it would make sense to install as many as 22 cameras – one for every seven inhabitants! – in order to monitor every corner of the town and to be able to read the license plates of passing cars. The mayor, Adriano Manfredi, wants to “give a signal of security to the population”, hit by repeated thefts in the houses. The privacy of citizens perpetually observed on the screens by the traffic police and the carabinieri? “Here we have nothing to hide”, cuts the mayor short. In fact, there have been no protests in Gottasecca, nor are people’s protests reported in the many Italian towns, small and large, which in recent years have equipped themselves with thousands of video cameras. As in Germany, the public road can only be monitored by public bodies, municipalities and law enforcement agencies, but the threshold is much lower. In Germany, the law requires to demonstrate that the aim pursued with video surveillance can not be achieved by other measures. When, in November last year, the German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, proposed extending video surveillance to the squares and large open spaces of big cities, the protest of the guarantors and the associations for the defense of privacy immediately arose. . Similar protests are almost completely absent in Italy.
The difference is not explained by the past of Nazism in Germany and then by communism in the German Democratic Republic, which would have made the Germans particularly sensitive to a state of surveillance, which wants to know too much about its citizens. In fact, Italy too has gone through more than 20 years of fascism, with its secret police spying on everything and everyone. Italy, however, unlike Germany, has also gone through other painful experiences, which have made the use of surveillance tools much more acceptable to its citizens. Three regions of the South see the presence of omnipresent and asphyxiating mafias: Cosa nostra in Sicilia, the Camorra in Campania, the Ndrangheta in Calabria. Furthermore, in the 1970s and 1980s, there has been a wave of left and right terrorism that has reached far higher levels than Germany. The fight against organised crime, both mafia and political, has made the pervasive use of surveillance instruments acceptable to the vast majority of Italians, be they video cameras or telephone intercepts. It will not be a coincidence, but in Italy the decision of a prosecutor and the investigating magistrate is enough to intercept the phones of a suspect, while in Germany it is required to be authorised by the court. In fact the numbers of the interceptions are very different. In 2012, the last year for which we have comparable data. in Germany 23,678 telephone users were intercepted, fixed or mobile. In Italy, the interceptions were 124,713! Often those interceptions end up in the newspapers, especially if they concern politicians or big managers. So the Italians were able to read the heated debate between Matteo Renzi and his father Tiziano, involved in investigations on the bank crash. So yes that privacy is invoked also in Italy. Renzi junior, in fact, reacted furiously, speaking of the pillory to which he was exposed and invoking a legal grip on the use of wiretapping. Many politicians have tried in the last 20 years, but so far they have not succeeded.