Online life: a (purely) private matter?

December 2013

If you’ve ever wondered what time Christian Heller takes a shower, you can find out at the click of a mouse. The German film critic and blogger has taken to recording every single thing he does throughout the day on his website, from cooking to body care, from parties to late-night kebabs. Heller sees nothing wrong with sharing all this with the world. What’s more, he considers the private sphere a bygone era – a notion that makes the majority of Germans shudder. Many members of the population are becoming worried about protecting their personal data – particularly in respect of online service providers and communication platforms. In the wake of the NSA scandal, the trust people place in search engines, digital payment processing and social networks now tends to be rather limited.

The U.S. intelligence phone tapping scandal, which even spread as far as Angela Merkel’s mobile, has clearly left its mark on people’s minds. Almost 70% of Germans worry about the security of their personal data and private life. These are the results of the “Data and protection 2013” survey conducted on behalf of the GfK Verein, for which around 2,000 people were asked a number of questions, including whom they would trust with handling their personal data. At the same time, very few respondents have personally had bad experiences in the past: just 7% have actually been victims of data misuse on one or more occasions. However, just under a quarter cannot even estimate just how private their private data really is – they are unable to say how they personally are affected by it.

More relaxed after turning 70

Age is certainly a factor in the extent to which data theft and interference with the personal sphere unsettles us. Among the younger generation, 68% say they are concerned about the security of their personal information. Within this bracket, 14 to 29-year-olds make up the average, proving that they are not as carefree as might sometimes be assumed. However, the number of worried Germans increases among the over-30s, around three quarters of whom admitted to being – in some cases very – anxious about the issue. The 30 to 49-year-old respondents showed particular concern, with 75% saying they worry about the issue. The 14 to 29-year-olds and the over-30s represent the people who use the internet on a daily basis and who presumably have much to lose regarding career and family. People tended to relax more after turning 70: at 58%, significantly fewer respondents in this age bracket be-lieve their private life is not well protected. This finding perhaps ties in with the fact that the over 70s generally spend less time online. Those who regularly surf the net are more predis-posed to worrying about breaches in data protection than those who spend more time of-fline. Furthermore, the topic is generally more of an issue for users of social media websites such as Facebook or Twitter than for those without a social media account.

U.S. online companies – worst performers in trust ranking

As far as German citizens are concerned, data protection in digital media leaves much to be desired. No service provider can claim the majority of people’s trust. Respondents showed the least concern when dealing with the communication industry’s “old hands”. Of those surveyed, 40% believe that their personal data is kept safe when given to telecommunica-tions agencies, many of which have been around a relatively long time. When it comes to search engines and online payment systems such as PayPal and ClickandBuy, confidence levels fall to only 35% in each case with almost the same number counting on the protective measures provided by the online shops. One quarter of Germans have no qualms about trusting online service providers, online communication platforms and messenger services with their data respectively. Just over 20% trust social networks, and a similar number are happy to give their data to online services in Europe. With just 9% of German respondents expressing trust in them, online service providers from the USA fared significantly worse.

Young people: more trust in social networks

The question as to whom online personal data can be entrusted threw up different answers according to the various age brackets. Generally, the younger people are, the more prepared they are to give their data when prompted to telecommunications and online service providers. Around every second 14 to 29-year-old believes the sensitive information they keep there is secure. Furthermore, 43% of youths and young adults think that their personal information is in good hands on a social network, a figure that represents almost twice as many respondents as in the other age groups. Young people also show significantly less concern about their private lives when they use messenger services or go shopping online.

Individual experiences in the virtual world also play a part: this is why social network users place much more trust in all kinds of online services than those who do not subscribe to so-cial media – although the former generally harbor more concerns about their private sphere and data protection than the average internet user. Those who have grown up experiencing online communication in all its facets and who use it on a regular basis are clearly more aware of the possibilities and risks to be found online. They have fewer problems with di-vulging personal data.

Online competitions: risk at its highest

When it comes to the security of sensitive data, one thing is clear for Germans: the risks of surfing the net are not the same whatever one is doing. They believe that online competi-tions carry particular risks: almost one in two suspect a particular risk of data misuse in com-petitions. Social networks such as Facebook occupy second place, followed by online banking and payment processing. Around one in six Germans consider loyalty schemes, online shop-ping and online gaming to be risky activities. By contrast, location services and online auc-tions are viewed by most as harmless: fewer than 15% see any data protection issues in these areas.

Concern ranking: worry about one’s bank account

So what can actually happen if data lands in the wrong hands? The majority of Germans as-sociate the invasion of the private sphere most closely with somebody gaining access to their savings. More than two thirds are afraid of this happening, and the issue spans all age brack-ets. This puts it in first place in the ranking. The only age group in which fewer respondents were afraid of online dangers was the over-70s. This can probably be attributed to the fact that people in this segment tend to use online services significantly less frequently.

In addition to possible financial damage, intrusion into one’s private life and identity fraud are also high up on the list of concerns: just over half of respondents were afraid of each of these happening. The possibility of somebody spreading false information about another, or even simply having access to sensitive data such as their political views, each unsettled just over 40% of respondents. Slightly more than one third worried about damage to their per-sonal integrity or to their family. Germans tended to be less troubled about the planning of terrorist attacks: only an average of 10% feared their stolen data would be used for this purpose.

How much privacy does a person need?

Christian Heller, who makes public everything he experiences in his life day after day, has written a book entitled “Post-privacy: living well without the private sphere”. In the book, he describes how people can still enjoy life without the security of data protection and privacy. Those as yet unwilling to warm to this idea may also turn to a totally different author: Heinrich Heine. Heine conceived and put into words all his own thoughts on the topic of pri-vacy, notably claiming that “it may be that the stars of heaven appear fair and pure simply because they are so far away from us, and we know nothing of their private life.”

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

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


Here you find a GfK Compact BlitzInterview on data security.