Tag Archives: Twitter

German Agency Wants to Snoop Social Networks to Analyse Creditworthiness

A German credit agency in is planning to analyse the creditworthiness of individuals by using information gathered from online sources such as Facebook and other social networking sites.

Schufa, Germany’s  largest credit agency intends to assess peoples ability to make repayments by using “crawling techniques,”  such as those used by Google, for the purpose of “identifying and assessing the prospects and threats.” A spokesman for Schufa told Spiegel Online that “everything is happening within the legal frameworks in Germany.”

Nevertheless, the proposal raises serious concerns over assessing a person’s reputation from information found on the web. Schufa is planning to analyse automatically recorded information on the Internet such as on social networks, and this can then be linked to the stored data gathered by the credit agency. Although Facebook pointed out that according to its terms and conditions, automatic registration of members was actually not permissible.

For a country with some of the strictest privacy laws in Europe, it is no surprise that the proposal has come under a strong criticism. Analysing data related to personal relationships which can be found on Facebook and Twitter in order to judge a persons creditworthiness is a severe invasion of privacy.

Since the German broadcaster NDR reported on the research project last  Thursday there has been a public outcry. Numerous privacy advocates and politicians have strongly criticised the proposal.

Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger,  the German Justice Minister, was quick to condemn the credit agency’s plans. She told the Spiegel that Facebook “friends and preferences” should not prevent an individual from, for example, being able to obtain a mobile phone contract. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger stated “Schufa and other credit agencies should disclose their full intentions of using Facebook data to check creditworthiness.” She said that the data used to determine someone’s credit report is already controversial and called for the process to be made “fully transparent.”

On Thursday, the Justice Minister was joined by Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner in warning Schufa and HPI about tracing individuals on social networks, and requested further information on the research plans. Rainer Brüderle a parliamentary member of the Free Democrats (FDP) stated that “Schufa’s plans go too far…social networks, like a circle of friends, are part of a person’s private life, and should therefore not be tapped.”

However, the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) which was to be commissioned by Schufa to develop a proposal for the project, has now pulled out due to mounting criticism from politicians and privacy advocates. The privately-funded information technology institute was going to explore the extent to which information from the Internet can help in evaluating the creditworthiness of individuals. HPI  announced that it has withdrawn from the contract with Schufa.

In a statement, the institute claimed there had been some “misconceptions” by the general public about their research approach. HPI Director Christoph Meinel stated that the project could no longer be carried out with the ease and in the “unburdened” conditions necessary.

The move by HPI, a clear blow for Schufa, has been welcomed by critics of the proposal, but it is unclear whether the credit agency intends to pursue the project regardless. The proposal could be hugely damaging to the privacy of individuals, linking their private relationships and their online reputation to their creditworthiness seems hugely invasive. Schufa’s plans could have detrimental effects on a person’s everyday life and further highlight the dangers of disclosing personal information on the internet. It is unclear whether Germany, a country with some of the most sophisticated privacy laws in the world would be able to justify such actions in accordance with its legal framework.

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Tweet Your Victim/Facebook Your Perpetrator

While the appalling behaviour of Twitter users in the Ched Evans case has caused an uproar in the UK, there is a contrary case taking place in Germany. The recent social media use in the UK saw a rape victim being named on Twitter, whereas the German case involved a woman naming a man who had been harassing her by sending her sexually explicit messages. Ariane Friedrich an olympic high jumper who trained as a police officer, posted the name and location of the man who had been sending her the messages on Facebook. This has caused a huge discussion in Germany, where privacy laws are known to be particularly stringent.

The man allegedly sent her images of his genitals with the sexually explicit/suggestive message stating that he had “just showered and shaved”. Ms Friedrich became enraged and posted his name and location on Facebook, adding that she will be filing a complaint with the police shortly.

Since she posted the message 2200 people have clicked the “like” button under the post along with 400 comments. In a later post Ms Friedrich explained  that she has “carefully read” through both supportive and critical comments. She added that “of course it had been a big step to make such a vulgar e-mail public”, but she said that this is not the first time she has been insulted and sexually harassed. She also stated that she had previously had a stalker. She claimed that she now felt it was time for her to act and to defend herself, even this posting sparked a huge reaction leading to a further 1100 comments. While some argue that her behaviour was completely justifiable, others claim that her self-administered justice amounts to an erosion of the law.

Her liability would depend on whether her claims are genuine or not and whether the named man actually sent those messages. If her assertion is proven to be true, then she will not be liable for defamation or libel. However if this is not the case, the situation could become more complex. In a well known German tabloid, the man (described in the German media as ‘a man with the same name as the alleged author to the messages’) claimed he had been hacked and has closed his Facebook account as a result. However it is probably unlikely that a judge would make the assumption that Ms Friedrich is accusing an innocent person. Therefore seems unlikely that she will be charged in relation to defamation. However she could be liable under civil law as she breached his right to privacy by making his personal details public. If the named man went to court over the issue he could possibly win in a civil claim, if the circumstances surrounding the publication of his details had sufficient gravity.

While the Friedrich case is very different to the Ched Evans/Twitter case, one case infringing the victims privacy while the other concerns the alleged perpetrator.  Germany has much stricter privacy law than the UK, mainstream media are much more restricted than in the UK. Naming a rape victim, when they should have anonymity for life raises serious concerns about protecting victims. The contrast between these two cases highlights different aspects of privacy law and the ethical minefield surrounding social media.

IP Law and Extradition Agreements

The recent extradition case against Richard O’Dwyer, involving the breach of US copyright law, raises serious issues about the use of extradition agreements between states.  The 23 year old student ran tvshack, a website hosting links to tv programmes and films which could be streamed online for free. By providing links to protected creative material, his website was allegedly in violation of US copyright law. Despite the indirect function of the site, the links can amount to secondary infringement which is a criminal offence under US law.

Richard O'Dwyer with his mother Julia outside Westminster Magistrates Court

How do these US laws apply outside it’s own jurisdiction? The simple answer would be that they don’t.. Or that’s what we would assume. The crimes O’Dwyer is being sought for by the American authorities are not actually offences in the UK. However under an extradition agreement between the US and Britain he could be tried for crimes in US courts. The the Extradition Act passed by Labour post 9/11 in 2003, was primarily designed for extraditing terror suspects and appears quite unsuitable in relation to this case. Clearly Richard O’Dwyer is not being sought for terrorism offences, so how can this treaty be applied to someone who has merely violated US copyright law.

In the US O’Dwyer could face a maximum sentence of 10 years, while he would most likely only face a fine in the UK for equivalent copyright violations. Sir Menzies Campbell, who is currently leading a review of UK extradition arrangements, stated:

Sir Menzies Campbell is leading a review into extradition on behalf of the Lib Dems

“It seems anomalous to say the least that an action taking place in the United Kingdom which would not be regarded as criminal can justify extradition to the U.S.”

In January, District Judge Quentin Purdy said that he was satisfied the alleged conduct would constitute an offence under British law, and ruled that the extradition could go ahead. He stated that it was important that justice was not hindered by national borders, to ensure alleged victims of crime along with the public could maintain faith in the legal system. It seems to me that being extradited for copyright infringement on agreements created to deal with terrorism suspects, is a strong incentive for the public to lose their confidence in the judicial system. Why can O’Dwyer not go on trial in the UK if Judge Purdy believes his conduct would constitute an offence in Britain?

If there are such grave concerns relating to protection of intellectual property, why do they not create cross border agreements relating to intellectual property law allowing individuals to be tried in their home countries?  It seems fundamentally wrong to use an agreement designed for an entirely different purpose to extradite a British citizen on much lesser offences. It appears that the British courts are dealing with American pressure to extradite O’Dwyer under the Extradition Agreement rather than addressing the nature and gravity of his case. Julia, Mr O’Dwyer’s mother, has been running a campaign to to fight his extradition and allow him to stand trial in the UK. In an interview with the World Socialist website, she criticised the UK’s willingness to extradite its own citizens without considering the alleged offences:

“With America, it is a whole different treaty and law. It’s very difficult to fight because you’re not addressing the alleged crime. You are fighting the extradition law. When you go through the extradition courts, they want you to go to America to prove your innocence. They don’t want to be looking at the allegations against you”

The O’Dwyer case draws worrying parallels with the case of Gary McKinnon, who has been fighting extradition to the US after hacking into the Pentagon website. The Asbergers sufferer claimed that he had hacked into the site in 2001 and 2002 in an attempt to find evidence relating to UFO’s. He has also been subject to the 2003 Extradition Agreement between the UK and US since it came into force in 2005 some years after he committed the relevant offences. If McKinnon is extradited and charged he could face up to 70 years in prison.

US President Barack Obama tried to distance himself from the issue of extradition when forced to answer a question about O’Dwyer’s case in a live digital questioning session in the White House. Thousands of web users had voted for it to be the top issue to be put to the president. Obama claimed that as a president he did not take a direct role in the case.

“I’m not personally doing anything, I want to make sure everybody understands… the president doesn’t get involved with prosecution decisions or extradition decisions and this has been a decision by the Justice Department”

While the US president may not be personally seeking O’Dwyer’s extradition, he did not criticise the case. Nor did he comment on the use of anti-terrorism legislation relating to the extradition agreement. In a stereotypical style of a politician he looked shifty and tried to move away from giving a clear answer.

The Extradition Agreement 2003 makes it much easier to extradite British citizens to the US than the other way round. The ratio of extradition currently stands at 5:2 in Americas favour. Mrs O’Dwyer has been very open in voicing her disappointment in the UK’s  handling of the case, she told the Daily Mail:

“The UK government’s passive acceptance of disproportionate extradition is shameful, but well known.” 

Extradition agreements should be reserved for serious crimes involving dangerous criminals. While the tvshack website may have been in violation of copyright laws in the US, extradition and custody measures  seem to be a hugely disproportionate punishment for a young university student. The role of British courts in this case is hugely alarming and raises concerns regarding the protection of British citizens. The extradition process should not be welcomed by UK courts but rather enforced as a last resort in serious circumstances. The laws used to extradite individuals should relate to their offences rather than serving a means to put them on trial in that country. If we constantly extradited British citizens for breaching laws of other states we probably wouldn’t be left with much of a population. Perhaps due to increased globalisation and internet piracy, a strengthening of intellectual property law is needed across borders. However extradition measures created for terrorism offences have no application in such circumstances.

A petition has been set up to campaign for a fair trial for Richard O’Dwyer in the UK.

Here is a short video on the case from RT News