German towns should sell data they have collected on topics such as noise pollution and traffic density to boost their revenues, according to an umbrella association representing their interests.
"Towns and municipalities have to become more aware that data is the oil of the 21st century and can be used to gain significant income," Gerd Landsberg, the managing director of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities (DStGB), told the daily Rheinische Post on Monday.
He said town councils possessed "valuable records" that they should not just make available free of charge, as has previously been the case, but instead use them for the benefit of their residents. He proposed a "franchise model" in which private companies could operate using the data that they paid for.
Landsberg's proposal met with considerable criticism from several quarters.
Andrea Vosshoff, who heads Germany's top data protection authority, warned that viewing personal data solely in a financial sense "reduces people to products."
She pointed out that the public was very aware of the problems associated with the trade in data.
"Even if using anonymous data is not problematic from the point of view of data protection, I warn against branding all such measures as harmless," she said. "In today's era of digitization and big data, there are ways of connecting up supposedly anonymous and thus harmless data in such a way that it becomes possible all of a sudden to make inferences about individual people after all."
The Left Party's parliamentary spokeswoman for internet policy, Anke Domscheidt-Berg, said that if such data were sold, big companies would be the ones to benefit rather than the general public.
"Ultimately, it means that mostly profit-making applications would be developed and little or nothing for the public good," she said.
The topic of data protection has been brought to the front of public debate in Germany as elsewhere by the scandal surrounding revelations of misuse of personal data from Facebook for political purposes .
German postal service Deutsche Post recently also faced allegations that it sold customer data to clients including political parties for use in election campaigns.
The company has rejected the claims made against its subsidiary Deutsche Post Direkt, saying it adhered completely to Germany's strict data protection laws.
tj/se (AFP, dpa)