Online privacy a concern for EU citizens

EU citizens believe data transmission over the Internet is not sufficiently secure and are increasingly using technology to protect their privacy online, a new poll reveals. The trend is posing a challenge to the current business practices of IT giants which rely on private data to offer their services.

82% of European Internet users have little trust in personal data management over the Web, according to a Eurobarometer poll on data protection issued yesterday (17 April) by the Commission.

The growing awareness of the risks related to potential abuses of private information appears to go hand-in-hand with an increased use of tools and technologies aimed at protecting privacy.

Indeed, the percentage of Internet users who are now aware of such technologies increased from 24% in 2003 to 42% in 2008. Usage rose from 6% to 25% over the same period.

Privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) include automatic anonymisation after a certain lapse of time, encryption tools and cookie-cutters that block cookies placed on the user’s PC to make it perform certain instructions without him being aware of them.

Among firms, the use of PETs is understandably even higher than among private Internet users, and it is also on an upward path. Now, 55% of companies in the ‘Old Europe’ use these tools, in comparison to 32% in 2003.

Such increased awareness could trigger a stronger political response to the widespread use of personal data typical of a growing number of Internet companies. Search engines use private information to refine the results of the queries posed by their users – but also to show them targeted ads. Online publicity is increasingly reliant on databases of private information to provide more accurate advertising. Booming social networking websites also contain vast amounts of private data (see EURACTIV 07/02/08).

On the particular issue of search engines and privacy, the Group of European Privacy Regulators issued an opinion in April suggesting a range of limitations on the collection and storage of private data by companies like Google or Yahoo! (see EURACTIV 09/04/08).

But although the level of awareness is increasing, it still remains relatively low among EU citizens. In countries like Ireland or France, well above two thirds of Internet users say they have never heard of PETs.

“It is our intention to fully analyse and understand the feedback we have been given by Europe’s citizens in this survey and we will ensure these comments inform the work we are doing in this area this year,” commented Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot, temporarily in charge of justice and home affairs.

The surveys were carried out in January 2008 and involved around 27,000 EU citizens and almost 5,000 companies from all 27 member states.

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