Can users protect their data autonomously?

February 2014

Hacked email accounts, spied passwords and data leaks on social networks: hardly a week has gone by in recent times without bad news about data protection. The reports have not gone unnoticed by Germans: consumers are concerned about the security of their personal data online, and they’re making the effort to protect themselves. However, most are still a long way from utilizing all of the technical opportunities on offer.

According to our second-most recent FocusTopic, Online life, just under 70% of Germans are concerned about protecting their personal data and private life. Online offers and communication platforms fare relatively badly in this field. It comes as no surprise that internet users themselves are actively trying to fill security gaps online. Almost all users employ at least one measure to protect themselves against misuse, according to further data from the “Data and protection 2013” survey, for which GfK Verein interviewed around 1,500 internet users in September 2013.

To protect themselves and their data from prying eyes, German internet users tend to use virus protection programs above all other measures. Almost three quarters of respondents depend on this kind of software whilst browsing. The majority (59%) also use firewalls as a matter of course. Those who wish not to be particularly active in a technical sense can still do one thing: see just who wants you to reply to their email. The simple piece of advice, to immediately delete an email that comes from an unknown source, has spread far and wide and is heeded by almost 60% of users. At fourth place in the data protection method ranking are spam filters, which are standard protection tools for nearly half of respondents. Almost just as many prefer to save passwords, PINs, TANs and similarly sensitive information in a separate location, or in their own heads, instead of on their hard drives.

Expandable: knowing the possibilities

As far as diversity of protection is concerned, there are still a number of untapped possibilities open to German internet users. Measures that aren’t as widespread or which require slightly more technical expertise appear lower down on the list: as few as just over 25% of respondents regularly delete their cookies and browsing history. The same applies to passwords: only a quarter of online Germans come up with complex combinations which include, for example, numbers or special characters. Almost just as many change their login data at regular intervals. However, the danger of data theft lurks not just on people’s own computers. Browsing the internet on another computer has only been taboo for around one third of respondents up until now – the majority remain active on other computers as well as their own, perhaps unaware of the data leaks that can occur.

Four percent go unprotected

Have you ever tried to block popups while browsing? If so (and if you’re German), you belong to the 24% of Germans who know how to prevent unwanted advertising pages from opening. Slightly fewer deliberately disable cookies (20%), the functions of which include being able to log users’ browsing behavior. Examples of less well-known measures are anti-spyware programs (15%), consciously going online infrequently (13%), fake usernames and profiles, such as on social networks (12%) or setting up an individual email address specifically for online registration to applications like games (10%). At the very bottom of the list are specialist search engines such as ixquick, which voluntarily choose not to collect or save their users’ data, software that facilitates anonymous browsing and email encryption programs, with only around 5% opting for these. Completely unprotected browsing is favored by only a small fraction of German internet users; just 4% generally tend not to use data protection measures.

The degree to which someone cares about protecting their own virtual space depends upon many different factors. As is to be expected, people who have been victims of data theft in the past require more security. From firewalls to specialist search engines: previous victims use all possible measures more frequently than anyone as yet unaffected. Furthermore, twice as many previous victims as non-victims play it safe and deliberately refrain from going online. However, both camps tend to be in agreement when it comes to the popularity of individual data protection measures, as the ranking has hardly changed.

Young users: very security-conscious

Looking at the different age groups, it seems that German youngsters are anything but carefree when it comes to data protection. In most cases, younger German internet users employ the various available measures more frequently than their older counterparts. The use of data security measures visibly decreases among people 70 years old and over. Youngsters and the middle age group (those up to 49 years old) are ahead when it comes to virus protection, firewalls, spam filters and password security. Younger users are also those most likely to employ the more technical measures. Of the under 30-year-olds, 37% disable cookies and regularly delete their browsing history. This value already sinks to 28% among 30 to 49-year-olds. The younger generation are also far ahead regarding fake usernames and separate email addresses for registration processes. This age group is also least likely to refrain from going online for security reasons, which was only an issue for 5% of online youngsters.

Evidently, the younger the user, the more time they invest in data protection. This is also because there is a greater number of frequent internet users (those who go online on a daily basis) among the younger generation. Occasional users generally tend to do less about data protection: not even half of those who go online once a month or less use a virus protection program. However, just over three quarters of frequent users have one. The picture is much the same regarding more complex measures: spam filters, regularly deleting cookies, creativity when choosing passwords and using software that blocks online advertising come more naturally to the web-savvy than to occasional users.

Rights and obligations online

What else can individual users do? ”Understand more thoroughly what happens online. Deepen any knowledge of what providers and users can and can’t do,” summarizes the Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband [Federation of German Consumer Organizations]. On their website,, they have compiled a number of recommendations, on what kinds of measures to take to browse the internet more securely. It also familiarizes users with topics they perhaps haven’t even come across yet.

Data source: GfK Verein (Study “Daten & Schutz 2013”, September 2013)

If you have any queries concerning this article, please contact Claudia Gaspar or Sandra Lades,  e-mail:


February 2014