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Surviving the Germans' extreme online privacy

Dana Regev
October 13, 2022

Moving from Israel to Germany, DW's Dana Regev was surprised to learn just how seriously Germans take their privacy. Here's how she survived.

Symbolfoto zum Thema Datensicherheit auf dem Smartphone Haende tippen auf einem Smartphone Berlin
Image: Thomas Trutschel/photothek/imago

Before scolding me for this headline alone, allow me to stress that I fully support people's efforts to protect their own data, and gain control over how their personal information is being used by organizations, businesses or governments.

Apple, for example, is currently facing harsh criticism by European privacy activists who say the company uses software that tracks the behavior of iPhone users.

A Vienna-based group called NOYB has even asked data protection authorities in Germany to examine the legality of unique codes that they say amount to tracking without users' knowledge or consent, a practice banned under strict European Union privacy rules.

But if you're used to less strict privacy rules, you might be in for a surprise around Germans.

1. 'Jo Hannes' is — shockingly — not their name

Almost all my German friends are using pseudo names on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram — that is, if they even have these apps to begin with.

Some go completely wild with their name choices, while others turn to seemingly wittier options, like splitting their first name into a made-up full name, like my beloved friend "Chris Tina" or my longtime neighbor "Alex Ander."

Opening my Facebook account in 2007 while visiting the US, I was under the impression, mistakenly perhaps, that the social media platform was meant to help you keep in touch with the people already close to you in some way — at least in its early days.

A person looking at their smartphone with the facebook logo in the background
'It's about keeping things to yourself as much as you can'Image: picture alliance / empics

Why I should hide my own name from my family or high school friends was — and still remains — a complete mystery to me, but with time, it became clearer why some Germans choose to do so nevertheless.

"For me it's not so much about Facebook finding information about me, because I'm already signed up with a dummy email address," 34-year-old "Isa Belle," a German teacher from Cologne, tells me over Telegram, asking that her full name not be used, as she is currently teaching a course of several dozen participants.

"It's because I don't want my students to find me on these platforms, stalk me in any way, or even for future employers," she explains. "I just want to make it a bit more difficult for people to trace me and get a window into my personal life."

2. 'Why hide?' — 'Why not?'

Often enough, when the topic of data protection comes up in conversations with family or friends in my home country, many dismiss it by claiming that "whoever wants to get certain information about you will find it one way or another."

In fact, some even prefer to give companies easier access to their data, as an old friend of mine put it when I talked to her about this article: "If I'm going to be bombarded with ads, they might as well be ads that interest me," she explained.

But that's just one of several points I've learned Germans are practically allergic to. Sure, bumping into ads online is probably inevitable, but why give companies easier access to our wallets voluntarily?

WhatsApp logo with terms and privacy policy displayed on a smartphone screen
Some people give companies easier access to their data. Many Germans are more sensitive about itImage: Andre M. Chang/ZUMA Wire/picture-alliance

Philipp Hermann, a 32-year-old IT worker from Berlin who proudly tells me he has no Facebook or Instagram profiles, is extremely sensitive to online advertising.

"People think they're immune. That the worst-case scenario is that they will buy a thing or two more than they planned to — but they don't realize just how much more they end up consuming," he says.

As someone who works in IT, he admits that he's perhaps more sensitive than the average population about sharing personal information, and not only because it could lead to impulsive shopping. For him, and for many others, it's about keeping things to yourself as much as you can.

"To someone who would ask me 'why hide?' I would like to point the opposite question: Why not?" he concludes, "Especially in light of what certain governments do with our information."

3. More than leaks

Embarrassed to even write how many of my passwords "were exposed in a third-party data breach" according to Google, I have always respected my German friends and colleagues for protecting themselves against leaks and breaches.

 photo of a laptop screen showing a computer virus warning
Leaked online data could lead to serious personal damageImage: picture-alliance/PA Wire/P. Byrne

Little did I imagine that some could suffer even more serious consequences.

"One of my friends is an activist whose details were published on neo-Nazi forums," Hermann reveals.

"She had to change her phone number, and for a while she also considered moving out of her flat share out of fear for the safety of her roommates."

Another close friend of mine, an immigrant to Germany who's very vocal about several social issues, is being continuously harassed by one of his neighbors, who looked him up on Facebook and was exposed to the stark differences in their political views. That very same neighbor also found his way into my profiles.

"It's not just about this ad or another," says "Isa Belle." For her, "it's about who gets to access my data and for which purposes. Since I can't possibly find that out, my motto is 'the fewer companies — the better.'"  

4. They're not rude — they're cautious

About a month into dating my current partner (a German), I tried to call him over the (actual) phone, since I didn't have enough internet reception to use Telegram (WhatsApp? FaceTime? Forget about it), only to find out that the number I had wasn't active. 

That entire time — I realized — I was texting or calling him over various apps to a number he had used exclusively for online dating, and seeing each other for a month or more was apparently not enough time for him to give me his "real" number.

"I used to have a stalker!" he insisted when I confronted him in tears, seriously considering to never see him again. "You can never know who's on these apps!" he said as he tried to gain back my trust.

The relationship miraculously survived, but I was not convinced to give new people in my life any other number but my real one. As for him, he keeps handing his "fake" number even in promising job interviews, so I had to slowly accept that this practice was not directed against me personally.

For now, I will probably keep my real name and email address connected to my social accounts, but at least I can say, after six years here, that I understand Germans' reluctance to do so a little better.

Toilet roll, 'home office' and data privacy

You'll find more about Germans and everyday life in Germany on dw.com/MeettheGermans and on YouTube. Make sure to also check out our new Instagram account @dw_meetthegermans.

This article was first published in 2021.