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Steps to boost online privacy mooted

How safe is your personal data? imagepoint

Protecting privacy on the internet requires better awareness among users and a shift in legal responsibility, a Swiss watchdog has warned.

Hanspeter Thür, the Swiss federal data protection commissioner, warns that users who continue to believe that online services are free could be seriously mistaken.

“The business system is always the same. Companies provide clients with a new and interesting online service. And clients pay by giving their personal data,” said Thür at the commission’s annual news conference on Monday.

The critical point is that it is difficult to see the risks behind such a mechanism.

Major online companies will collect and store all sorts of information on a user, analyse the data and sell it for different purposes.

“It is often impossible to know where somebody has obtained the information. The individual has no way of controlling the collection of personal data,” adds Jean-Philippe Walter, deputy commissioner.

Walter points out that the data is used out of context, for instance if an employer gathers information on a jobseeker and finds pictures on a social network such as Facebook.

“There is a risk that a person can be tracked through data which has been stored for a long time and that the information is later used for purposes outside the original context,” Walter says.

Opt in

The office therefore backs legal amendments to put the onus on service providers to offer better protection of privacy.

“We want providers to base their terms of business on the assumption that individuals deserve the best possible protection. ‘Opt in’ rather than ‘Opt out’ should apply,” Thür said.

Those who forego the safeguard, would have to inform the provider personally.

At the moment the onus is the other way round. A user who wishes not to disclose personal data has to find his way through a complex set of conditions which are also subject to frequent changes, according to Thür.

The office also seeks to point out possible risks of social networks, which are highly popular among the younger generation. “But it is not our aim to ban them at all,” says Thür.

Young generation

In a bid to raise awareness among young users of online applications and services the commissioner has published guidelines for teenagers, parents and teachers alike. Further initiatives are planned.

A special one-day programme at schools in January showed the need for more informative steps, says Thür.

“Pupils were interested in the issue of data protection. And the young generation does care about the consequences of publishing personal data on the internet,” he said.

However, Thür says it cannot be the task of his office to come up with detailed teaching material.

International cooperation

The office also calls for efforts to increase international cooperation to solve a tricky situation.

Regulations about data protection are tougher in Europe than in the United States, giving American companies, such as Google and Facebook more freedom.

“We need more cooperation in Europe if we want to find answers on how to handle it, he said.

The internet provider Google is facing legal action in Switzerland over its failure to meet demands for better privacy protection in its Street View service.

Although the company reached an interim agreement last November in a dispute over pictures of Swiss cities and towns taken from car-mounted camera, Google continued to reject other demands.

The service has been criticised for allowing individuals to be identified without their knowledge or consent.

A final decision by the Federal Administrative Court is expected later this year.

Urs Geiser, (With input from Armando Mombelli)

The service was launched in the US in 2007.

It can now be seen in at least nine countries in Europe, Australia, South Africa and Japan.

Street View Switzerland was added in August 2009.

The ultimate aim of Google is to provide street views of the whole world.

The Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner’s duties involve supervising federal and private bodies and advising the authorities in the field of data protection.

The commission was set up in 1993.

The commission can appeal an order by ministries or the chancellery if its recommendation is rejected.

Following a 2006 legal reform more transparency is required in the processing of personal data.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR