Are Germans Paranoid about Internet Privacy and Data Protection?

During the past months, I did a lot of research around social networks. It became quickly obvious to me that there is a clash of culture between my typical German attitude towards privacy and data protection on the one hand, and the way how social networks usually deal with such data on the other hand.

My initial reaction was that the social networks and their users are simply and fundamentally wrong, as they don’t properly reflect on the risks and misuse potentials of dealing with privacy in such a lax manner. But as I look more into the underlying principles, I wonder why it is so easy to agree with Germans in my age group, and why younger people and residents of most other nations don’t seem to care much.

Influence of German History

The best explanation I found is that Germany has its heritage of WWII (and afterwards in Eastern Germany), when citizen where encouraged to spy even on family members and friends to reveal wrong (i.e. not conform with official politics) mindsets. People born in the 50s to 70s were constantly reminded of this terrible history, as major topic of discussion at schools and in various public forums. I remember reading the book ‘1984’ from Orwell when the year still sounded like a far-away future; and the book and similar others had a strong impact on me until today.

Behavioral Change in Society

Today, people seem to share more and more of their lives, in real-time and with whoever wants to hear about it. This is not just an Internet phenomena. When I sit on my daily train commute and some young women start to discuss their relationships at a microscopic detail, I hastily pull out my iPod earphones to protect myself from the subjective embarrassment of overhearing them. Other travellers at my age put their heads deeper into their books and pretend not to hear anything. Younger people politely listen (and maybe learn something), unless they are busy to argue loudly with their boy-friends and girl-friends on their mobile phones. I have never watched any of the social thrash series on TV (Big Brother and all the spawned legions of embarrass-yourself-as-much-as-you-can). Just reading about them causes me physical pain.

On the Internet, people tweet, update their Facebook stati, check-in at real-world locations, share photos with the world, and use many other means to publish whatever they do, think, feel, drink, eat, love, hate or wish. All these emotions and actions are constantly re-tweeted, liked, plussed by followers and friends. Privacy is usually not much of a concern.

A Fake (Online) Life

So, being interested in social networks, I started out with the typical behavior of a privacy-paranoid middle-aged German: I created tons of fake IDs. My Facebook account shows a fat Norwegian man who studied at some Norwegian university etc.etc. With that ID, I receive a lot of Norwegian advertising (I don’t feel too bad about misleading the advertisers and it is easier to ignore the ads if you can’t read them) and “friends” from my Norwegian schools try to befriend me. I ignore these requests, as my Norwegian language skills are as bad as my ability to discuss my sex life loudly on a train. But as a side effect of this fake ID, I cannot (online) befriend real people whom I know, as they don’t accept this fat Norwegian guy. I would also advise my kids strictly to ignore such friendship requests (I am sure there are nice fat Norwegians, but I mean the fact that it is a complete stranger).

I subscribed to Twitter. I was surprised how much useful information can be found by looking out for certain keywords (hashtags in Twitter speak) and by following people who are followed by people who have similar interest as I have. But following is only one part of Twitter. The other part is own Tweets. Many people tweet completely personal and often trivial stuff (I am sure and happy that I don’t ever see 99,999% of these). Other people talk about highly interesting stuff and link to detailed information. I am amazed how useful that is. I experiment with also publishing useful information, but feel myself extremely limited by my privacy paranoia. And of course, it would be strange to tweet only under a fake ID. So, I switched to a real account.

I subscribed to Foursquare (and some other similar services). Foursquare is a location-based service where users can “check in” at locations through their mobile phones. The advantages are listed as being able to see what friends are doing, where they are, meet with them ad-hoc, learn about new places (e.g. good food at a restaurant), get tips from other visitors, and increasingly to get discounts from merchants that are located close by. Sounds interesting, but a typical mid-aged German would never never ever want to voluntarily create a trail of all his locations. Just as a matter of principle. Location based services were described as “Please-Rob-Me.com” by some publications, as they have the potential to assist robbers in a great way by broadcasting the best time to visit your (soon to be) empty home. So, I started with a fake ID, my usual tactics for exploration. I checked into 500+ locations, some of them so frequently that I became “mayor” (a game concept in Foursquare with a promise that I might get special discounts in the future when the location owners start to understand the potential and reward their best guests). OK, but since it is a fake ID and since most of my German friends would never touch such an app, there is not much about the social side. I can see that some of my less concerned friends do check into places and automatically tweet about that through Twitter. I find it interesting to see if someone checks into a place that I know and my interest slowly increases.

Seeing some First Advantages

A few weeks ago I went hiking to some mountains and checked-in there, too, with my mobile phone and through Foursquare. It was a wonderful day and I took photos. I realized that I could take the photos also inside Foursquare and share them with Twitter and/or Facebook. I tried it out and in the evening, my kids told me that they watched my tour and photos (as they are by now connected to my Norwegian fake account). Cool!

At my next vacation, I took more photos that way. The difference was that now I was traveling with my wife and she ended up being on my photos, making it even nicer for my kids to watch. But suddenly I realized that I do not share just with my kids, but these photos are now connected forever with the locations, for anyone to see. With some face-recognition software, as recently introduced by Facebook, it will not take too long to track our vacation routes, even with all my fake ID protections. And I also noticed that the activation of my Facebook account in my mobile phone brought my real mobile number into my fake Facebook profile. So I find it more and more difficult to maintain my privacy protection.

Transition Situation

A few weeks later, I am a heavy power user of a large variety of social media and mobile apps.

I have a blog under my real name, a real Twitter account, a real profile on LinkedIn, a real profile on XING (the German equivalent to Linkedin), as well as a variety of fake IDs that are partially connected with my real accounts. I am a bit overwhelmed by using not just these services listed above, but also mail accounts at Yahoo, Google, some German providers, and social services from Google+ (who don’t want to allow fake IDs but haven’t identified mine yet), YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr, Vimeo, Gowalla, SCVNGR, and various others.

What I have learned is that these new and often really innovative services only work if they are simple, intuitive and viral. Privacy protection increases complexity. Of course, every single service could offer more ways to protect privacy (and often they do; Facebook has tens of options that allow users to customize their privacy settings). Google+ (the Facebook equivalent of Google) gets most praise for a feature called “Circles” that make it easy to organize 100s of friends into subsets and thus to be able to communicate more targeted. But it seems to me that overall these new media require an open attitude towards sharing information much more broadly than what I thought appropriate.

Conclusion

Recent discussion with German friends suddenly put me into an outsider position, as I start to advocate advantages of this new openness. Of course I still see all the risks and I am far from being able to communicate all my private (in my view) things to the world as a whole. But every day I can see more upside potential. So, I will watch myself over the next months as I move more and more into that direction.

Maybe in a year I will beg Google to put my house back into Streetview. It took me several hours to make sure that Google accepted my explicit wish to have it scratched out from my neighborhood (although all houses here basically look the same anyways). I don’t see yet any advantage of such a photo. But who knows: maybe in a year I will wear a portable webcam to make sure that everyone can watch me watching my computer screen.

Yes, Germans are Paranoid about Privacy!

Getting back to the original question “Are Germans Paranoid about Privacy? ”. I would say, yes, Germans at my age are paranoid about privacy. The question is whether such paranoia is justified or not. There are plenty of historical examples (not just in German history) where a lack of privacy led to massive disadvantages for citizen. A counter argument is that until 100 years ago, there was hardly any privacy at all. When most people lived in villages, everyone knew almost everything about everyone. But that also put many people at a disadvantage, when they became the targets of gossip and mobbing.

In an ideal world, people would have complete control about their data and be able to delete data about them that they don’t want to be stored and shared. With ideal software, people could easily define with whom to share what kind of data. I hope that such systems will come into existence, but my feeling is that social media are still so much in their infancy, that we will see several years (if not longer) of very limited control about privacy.