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Privacy Problems

DW staff (jp)
September 4, 2008

At an emergency summit in Berlin, German ministers have agreed to update data protection laws for the digital age in the wake of scandals that showed how easily personal details can be bought on the Internet.

A telephone bill, with sections highlighted
Ministers discussed how to protect citizens from illegal trade in private informationImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble called the meeting of political and business leaders Thursday, Sept. 4, to bring Germany's data-protection regulations up to date for the digital age and to reassure consumers that their details were safe.

The conference comes in the wake of a series of privacy scandals. In mid-August, a former call center worker gave authorities a CD containing the bank details of 17,000 people which he said his employer had procured from a lottery firm.

The whistle-blower claimed to possess he had the details of another 1.5 million people. To test how easy it was to procure personal details, German officials turned to the Internet, and managed to buy 6 million items of personal data for just 850 euros ($1,230) in a matter of a few days.

Consent required

An image of Schaueble on a computer screen
Schaeuble wants the public to feel its data is safeImage: AP

After Thursday's meeting, Schaeuble told reporters the government planned to make it illegal for data to be passed between firms without the permission of the person concerned.´

In future an individual's "express consent" would be needed to pass information, he said, explaining that a working group would draw up proposals on higher fines for data protection violations and tighter rules on the trade with personal and financial information.

"There will be no quick shots but speedy consultations to get the law proposal ready before the end of the year," Schaeuble said.

Perfectly legal

Meanwhile, federal data protection commissioner Peter Schaar pointed out that changing the legislation was tricky as much of what currently happens was perfectly legal, the AFP news agency reported.

"The problem is that in a new world of information technology the data are subject to new uses and risks of abuse," Schaar added. "To do something against this means that we should consider whether these hitherto legal sources of data remain appropriate or whether new legal measures should be brought in."

Bad for business

A CD rom
A CD full of names and bank accounts was at the center of the recent data protection scandalImage: AP

The business community is concerned that tightening regulations could damage Germany's competitiveness.

"The criminal activities of certain individuals should not be used as an excuse to destroy the balance between the need to protect consumers and the justified interests of the economy," Martin Wansleben, head of the German DIHK federation of chambers of commerce, told daily Handelsblatt.

Schaeuble expressed sympathy for these fears and said that the government would be "careful to avoid any knee-jerk reactions" and that it would strive to achieve "the right balance."

Privacy campaigners have called for a ban on the trade of personal data, drawing sharp criticism from information technology and telecommunications companies.

"Some consumers actually want to receive advertisements and accept that their data is passed on," August-Wilhelm Scheer from the Bitkom sector association told Handelsblatt.

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