Surfing for Details German Agency to Mine Facebook to Assess Creditworthiness

A leading German credit agency plans to mine Facebook and other social networking sites in search of information that could have a bearing on a person's creditworthiness, according to media reports. But several leading politicians have criticized the plan.
A leading German credit agency wants to mine Facebook for information on people's creditworthiness.

A leading German credit agency wants to mine Facebook for information on people's creditworthiness.

Foto: Julian Stratenschulte/ dpa

Germany's largest credit agency plans to use information it gathers online, including from individual Facebook pages, in its analysis of an individual's creditworthiness.

The credit agency, SCHUFA, plans to use Facebook to study a person's relationships in determining how that might affect their ability to pay their bills, the German broadcaster NDR reported Thursday, citing confidential internal documents.

SCHUFA also plans to analyze information about people from other sites like the professional networks Xing and LinkedIn, Twitter, a personal search engine called Yasni, and Google Street View, NDR reported. The credit agency, according to NDR, plans to use "crawling techniques," like those used by Google, with the goal of "identifying and assessing the prospects and threats."

A credit agency spokesman confirmed to SPIEGEL ONLINE that a project called "SCHUFALab@HPI" exists, and added that "everything is happening within the legal frameworks in Germany." SCHUFA has commissioned the privately-funded information technology college, Hasso Plattner Institute, at the University of Potsdam, to develop a proposal for the project.

'Plans Go Too Far'

News of the credit agency's plans drew quick condemnation from the German Justice Minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). "It cannot be that Facebook friends and preferences lead to one, for example, not being able to get a cell phone contract," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "SCHUFA and other credit agencies should disclose their full intentions of using Facebook data to check creditworthiness."

She said that it is already controversial what data is used in determining someone's credit report and called for the process to be "finally fully transparent."

Rainer Brüderle, FDP floor leader in German parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that SCHUFA should refrain from carrying out its project. "SCHUFA's plans go too far," he said. "Social networks, like a circle of friends, are part of a person's private life, and should therefore not be tapped."

There are approximately 20 million Facebook users in Germany, and SCHUFA has collected data on more than 66 million consumers. Until now, most of the information for the credit agency has come from partners like banks, insurances agencies, and businesses. The credit reports are used frequently when someone in Germany applies for loans, rents an apartment or completes a cell phone contract.

According to NDR's report on the confidential documents, the online texts could be analyzed "to determine the current opinions of a person," and researchers could use Facebook, Xing or Twitter profile information to find the "addresses, and especially changed addresses" of other users.

The news of SCHUFA's new plan also was criticized by Germany's active data protection community. "Should SCHUFA really utilize the information, it would be an entirely new dimension," Thilo Weichert, the data protection representative for the state of Schleswig-Holstein told NDR.

With reporting by Veit Medick and Severin Weiland

mbw -- with wires
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