As the German cabinet debates new rules on data security ahead of the launch of mapping service Google Street View, users of social networking sites are split on how important privacy is on the Internet.
Privacy settings on social networking sites are often opaque
The launch of Google's mapping service Street View has triggered a fierce debate in Germany about privacy on the Internet. While the German cabinet mulled over its strategy on data protection on the web on Wednesday, users of social networking sites are divided on the issue, with younger people generally less worried about divulging personal information on sites like Facebook or the German sites Xing or studiVZ.
The American hacker Ron Bowes has demonstrated just how easy it is to access those details. He collated and then published the data of 100 million Facebook users. Although the information was out there anyway, it still showed how a simple search can reveal that data to anyone.
When it comes to privacy concerns, people are split along generational divides. Users under 30, the so-called digital natives, tend to be less worried about privacy than those over 30, known as digital immigrants, because they did not grow up with networking sites, or even computers.
Children and the under-30s are at ease with computers and social networking
"They [under 30s] have grown up watching talk shows and reality TV programs like Big Brother, where nothing is private anymore," Klemens Skibicki from the German Institute for Internet Communication and Law told Deutsche Welle. "For them, the lines are blurred between what's private and what's public."
Digital immigrants are less likely to share personal information on the web. They often use social networking sites to see what their children and grandchildren are up to. Generally speaking, the older the user, the less likely he or she is to share information.
Most networking sites require you to consciously deactivate certain settings if you are worried about data protection, which is no mean feat according to experts.
"The privacy settings on Facebook are so complicated and convoluted, the average user doesn't understand them," Jo Bager, network expert for German computer magazine c't told Deutsche Welle.
"And they're getting even more complicated. The company says it has simplified and standardized the settings and that they will not be changed for a while now, but I think they're still far too complicated."
Further potential headaches for users are additional applications, also called apps, offered on sites like Facebook. If you decide to use them, you may well pass on your friends' details in the process.
"That's essentially what you want to protect the most - your personal contacts," said Bager. "So, Facebook is constantly inviting you to divulge your friends' details and you don't even know if they really want that. But Facebook gets access to the data that way."
Google's Street View remains a fiercely-debated issue in Germany
The negative reaction to Google's Street View in Germany has shown that many people are deeply suspicious about anything that affects their privacy. As a result, the German government has introduced the right for each individual to object to having his or her house or flat shown on the virtual maps.
"That right is unique to Germany," Ilse Aigner, German Minister for Consumer Affairs, told public broadcaster ARD on Wednesday.
"There are 23 countries that offer this service [Street View], but Germany is the only country where you can opt out," she said.
The German government is set to unveil more comprehensive rules on data protection on the Internet this autumn.
Authors: Franziska Schmidt, Nicole Goebel
Editor: Rob Turner