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Data protection

July 22, 2010

Younger, Internet-savvy Germans say they understand why officials are going after these companies, but aren't changing their behavior as a result of it

CD and lock
Some Germans say that not all data should be protected in the same wayImage: Bilderbox

Gabriel Yoran is the co-founder of Aka Aki, a mobile social network that connects people through their mobile phones. Launched in 2008, Aka Aki boasts 600,000 users in Germany and France, and must also comply with German data protection legislation.

Despite recent government inquiries into Google's having accidentally collected data over unsecure WiFi networks while photographing for its Street View service, and Facebook's retention of email data by people who aren't even members of the site, Yoran said that this hasn't changed peoples' behavior.

"Do you know anyone that has quit their Google Mail account after they found out that while doing Google Street View, they were recording WiFi data?" said Yoran, "I don't know anyone who did that."

Indeed, the nearly eight million Germans on Facebook are still sharing photos and posting on each others' walls just as much as before. And Google is still the search king of Germany, with over 90 percent of the online search market.

This discrepancy reflects a significant gulf between the laws public officials are trying to enforce, and the online behavior of many young, Internet-savvy Germans.

Google Street View screenshot
Google Street View is currently available in Spain, France, the United States, Canada and a few other countries -- but not GermanyImage: picture alliance/dpa

Even though Google made a mistake, and has admitted to it, Yoran doesn't understand why there's so much paranoia about Google photographing the streets in Germany - especially when this information can help people.

"I know people in wheelchairs and they often don't know whether they can go somewhere because they don't know if there are barriers or ramps," explained Yoran, "and in other countries they use Street View to find out whether they can enter that certain museum or that certain underground station because they can see it. And here you can't."

Facebook should be more transparent, officials say

Negative publicity hasn't stopped Germans from using Facebook either - despite the announcement last month by Germany's consumer protection minister, Ilse Aigner, who said she would quit Facebook to protest the company's attitude towards privacy. While some criticized this step as a media stunt, Yoran agreed that Facebook should be more transparent.

Ilse Aigner, Germany's consumer protection minister
Ilse Aigner, Germany's consumer protection minister, said last month she would quit FacebookImage: AP

"When Facebook imports your address book from your phone to find out people that you know and to suggest that you become friends with them," he said, adding that "you should at least know when they throw away the data they gather from your phone, because right now Facebook doesn't say anything about that."

Beyond legal inquiries, the federal privacy commissioner, Peter Schaar, recently called for the creation of a smartphone app that would tell people how data from their mobile is being used.

Germany's history of data surveillance

So why are Germans so hung up about what happens to their data? According to Markus Beckedahl, editor of the blog Netzpolitik.org, Germany's fierce data protection legislation today is a result of the country's history.

"With two dictatorships - the Nazis and then in the Eastern part - the GDR - all the people fear that some kind of power stores a lot of data and can work with the data," he said.

Younger Germans unmoved

But some Germans may see more shades of grey when it comes to data protection.

Frauke Godat, who works for The Hub, a co-working space in Berlin, says that not all data may be worth protecting in the same way.

For example, some Germans are upset about supermarket loyalty cards, but Godat doesn't care if a company knows what kinds of groceries she buys.

"That's not information that I value about me. If they want to know what I buy, that's fine, that doesn't really concern me." she said. "I have a feeling that people here in Germany are very over-protective with their data."

Kai von Lewinski, a law professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, explains that in part, this may have to do with a generation gap. Young people today have a different attitude towards privacy and data protection, and also a different relationship to the internet than their parents do, he said.

"If an online service is worth using, but doesn't care about data privacy, they give them fake data or only use it in a specific manner," he said.

Von Lewinski added that young people don't wait for regulation - they just react to new technologies and programs. But that doesn't mean they're not conscious of what they're doing.

Even though the average person might not care about their details being used by retail stores, von Lewinski said that there is a place for regulation and somebody should be keeping tabs on these companies. Without data protection measures the combination of credit card details with personal information could leave people vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Cyrus Farivar