Spiros Simitis: Spiritus Rector of German data protection law is dead

He was a formative leader in the legal protection of privacy and the freedom of the individual in Germany and Europe. Spiros Simitis, spiritus rector of modern data protection law, died in Königstein im Taunus on Saturday, March 18, after a long, serious illness. This was announced by the Hessian data protection officer, Alexander Roßnagel, on Monday. At the same time, he regretted the loss of an “important pioneer of data protection”.

Professor Spiros Simitis

Professor Spiros Simitis

Professor Spiros Simitis

(Image: University of Frankfurt)

The 88-year-old German-Greek has “decisively shaped the basic understanding of the right to informational self-determination in Hesse, Germany and Europe,” emphasized Roßnagel. Early on and with clear-sightedness, he repeatedly recognized threats to fundamental rights through the future use of information technology and vehemently urged the timely protection of fundamental rights. Simitis, as a professor of labor law, civil law and legal informatics in Frankfurt am Main, initiated the first discussions on data protection in Germany in 1969. At the same time, he supported the conception and formulation of the Hessian Data Protection Act of 1970, which made history as the first set of standards of this kind.

From 1975 to 1991 he acted as the second Hessian data protection officer. His scientific work prepared for the recognition of data protection as a fundamental right by the Federal Constitutional Court in its 1983 census ruling. He then developed widely recognized principles for the implementation and enforcement of the right to informational self-determination. Between 1982 and 1986, the legal scholar headed the Council of Europe’s expert commission for data protection issues, and from 1988 he advised the EU Commission in this area. In this role, he helped birth the 1995 EU Data Protection Directive, the predecessor of today’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The words of the pioneer had weight far beyond the community of lawyers and network politicians, his predictions usually turn out to be correct. “Democracy is characterized by a waiver of information,” he emphasized at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Berlin data protection authority in 2009. Whenever the state and business collect personal data on a large scale, “they scatter”. Prevention policy leads to “controllability” of those affected. If the citizen discloses information about himself, this should not always be used in a democracy. Early on, he drew attention to the dangers of biometric mass surveillance, which still characterize the debate about a ban on automated facial recognition in public spaces.

“With him, data protection loses an eloquent advocate and at the same time a sensitive and clever defender,” the data protection conference of the federal and state governments (DSK) mourns in an obituary. Curious and well-versed, the pioneer took up new developments and continued to think constructively. Simitis was “Greek by birth, European by conviction and data protectionist with passion”. “With him, an era of rebuilding data protection law with the creation of a basis ends,” writes the DSK. She is committed to his legacy: In the spirit of Simitis, she will “protect, defend and further develop” the rights and freedoms and in particular the informational self-determination of citizens.


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