Consumers should be cautious with their personal data
Jul 30, 2009, 10:17 GMT
Hamburg - There have been numerous data scandals in recent months in the digital world. Multinational European companies like Germany's Telekom and discount grocery store Lidl have been accused of spying on their employees, while several worrying cases in which address and account number information was illegally exchanged have raised alarms.
The internet search engine Google caused a stir by providing images of entire streets of houses and social networking websites like Facebook have become sources of information that employers can easily tap into.
In Germany, the parliament, in its last regular meeting of the legislative period at the beginning of July, passed a change in the country's data protection law. No one was actually satisfied with the compromise. For example, personal data can still be used without permission from its owner by advertisers or non-profit organizations. The politicians did not write into the law that an expressed agreement must be obtained in advance.
And the basic trend continues: More and more activity is taking place on the internet, and thus the abuse danger rises. But data protection advocates say this isn't a time for fatalism - they advise people to take countermeasures. Citizens and consumers are not able to protect themselves against all attempts to collect information about them, said Thilo Weichert, director of the independent state centre for data protection in Germany.
'There is no such thing as one hundred per cent protection,' said Weichert. But by developing a higher sensibility and establishing ground rules, the risks can be reduced at least to a degree in which the individual still has the possibility of controlling his own data.
Rena Tangens, founder of a citizens' rights and data protection association called FoeBud in Germany, also encourages more self-initiative in the private sphere. Consumers still assume the law protects them. The law is often not sufficient on one hand and on the other it is not capable of punishing offences retroactively. Essentially, it is better to think preventively and release as little information about oneself as possible.
Privacy specialists call it data frugality. It means that to the extent possible consumers should minimize the amount of data they release into circulation, especially, but not only, in their use of electronic communications, particularly those susceptible to being spied upon. The less frequently one uses these means of communication, the more difficult it becomes for advertisers and other interested parties to establish a profile.
'When a consumer communicates electronically and leaves behind traces, there always is the risk these traces can be used for purposes other than intended,' Weichert stressed.
The experts provided five guidelines for protecting personal data:
Remain anonymous: Whether doing banking business, shopping on the internet or placing a call on a cell phone, sending a text message or chatting in an internet chat room, consumers should conceal their activities and their identities to the extent possible. It's best to pay cash whenever possible, said Tangens. Use credit or debit cards only when it's absolutely necessary. The use of prepaid phone cards also allow providers less opportunity to gather personal information than cell phone contracts, said Weichert. People who use e-mail, write a blog or participate in internet chats should not divulge their names. If identifying oneself is not required, use a pseudonym, he added.
Shop carefully on the internet: Internet users who shop or do electronic banking should take it seriously and be well informed about the other party's data protection policies. To avoid being spied on and to impede attempts to defraud, internet users should exclusively use sites that are especially secure against attacks. Such sites are recognizable through a lock graphic that appears before the address line, said Evelyn Kessler, spokeswoman for a consumer centre in Stuttgart. 'A reasonably good online shop offers an encrypted interface,' Kessler said.
Read data protection policies: Whether a transaction is carried out electronically or not, customers should always make it clear in the contract that they do not tolerate the sale of their personal data. Standard business terms and data protection policies are often formulated in a way that indicates the consumer does not object to the sharing of his or her data. This should always be refused in writing on grounds of the traceability of the data, Kessler advises.
Games and rebates: Stay away from games and be careful with rebates. Offers to participate in drawings, contests and similar campaigns are indeed tempting, but often their primary goal is to collect data. 'Games exists to collect customer data and to generate addresses,' Tangens said. Lifestyle questionnaires in the internet are there to gather information about the way people conduct their lives and to obtain data on consumer habits. Rebate cards offered by many chain stores and shops serve the purpose of establishing a customer profile. Tangens said consumers must understand that no company gives things away for free.