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Brussels, 17 April 2008

Eurobarometer survey reveals that EU citizens are not yet fully aware of their rights on data protection

This summary gives an overview of the findings of the Flash Eurobarometer survey on Data Protection that was conducted in January 2008. Previous waves of the survey had been performed three times before, in 1991, 1996 and 2003. Fieldwork was carried out from January 8th to 12th, 2008. Over 27,000 randomly selected citizens aged 15 years and over were interviewed in the 27 EU Member States.

A majority of EU citizens showed concern about data protection issues. Two-thirds of survey participants said they were concerned as to whether organisations that held their personal data handled this data appropriately (64%). The level of concern about data protection has only changed slightly since the early 1990s. Two-thirds of respondents were concerned about this in 1991. Since then, the number has fluctuated, before returning - in 2008 - to the early 1991 level (68%).

EU citizens feel that their personal data is best protected by medical services, doctors and public institutions. From a list of public and private organisations, EU citizens placed the most trust in medical services, doctors and the police to protect their personal data. The greatest levels of distrust were related to mail order companies. Respondents’ confidence in organisations’ data privacy policies has increased constantly since the early 1990s. Exceptions were the medical services and doctors, non-profit-organisations and mail order companies, where confidence has remained at the same level over the last five years. Market and opinion research companies were the only ones to have seen a continuing decrease in levels of trust from 1991 to 2008.

Respondents tended to see low levels of data protection in their own country. Not even half of respondents (48%) thought that their data was properly protected in their own country. A majority even feared that national legislation could not cope with the growing number of people leaving personal data on the Internet (54%). A vast majority also felt that their fellow citizens had low levels of awareness about data protection (77%).

Even though EU citizens were quite well informed about some of the existing data protection regulations, there were still some considerable information gaps:

  • The interviewees were presented with a list of rights European citizens have vis-à-vis organisations that hold their data, such as their right to take legal action in case of abuse of personal information or to be compensated for the resulting damage. Each of the listed rights was familiar to a majority of the respondents. However, only a quarter of respondents knew that European citizens enjoyed all of those rights (27%).
  • Furthermore, only 29% of respondents knew that sensitive data like information about racial or ethnic origins, political opinions, etc. received special legal protection. A small minority (17%) had heard that personal data could only be transferred outside the EU to countries that ensured an adequate level of data protection.

The national data protection authorities were relatively unknown to most of the EU’s citizens. On average, only 28% of respondents said they had heard about the existence of such institutions in their country. Greece and Hungary had the highest levels of recognition (51% and 46%, respectively). The awareness of such institutions across the EU has remained unchanged over the past five years.

Most European Internet users feel uneasy when transmitting their personal data over the internet: 82% of Internet users reasoned that data transmission over the Web was not sufficiently secure. However, only a minority of Internet users said they used tools and technologies that increased data security on the Net, i.e. firewalls or cookie filtering (22%).

In the eyes of most EU citizens, the fight against international terrorism is an acceptable reason to restrict data protection rights. A majority of respondents agreed that it should be possible to monitor passenger flight details (82%), telephone calls (72%) and Internet and credit card usage (75% and 69%, respectively) when this served to combat terrorism.

However, there was suspicion about any provisions that would allow authorities to relax data protection laws. Most respondents, in favour of more relaxed data protection laws, said this should be within clearly-defined limits: around a third of respondents stressed that only suspects should be monitored (27%-35%) and approximately one in five (14%-21%) wanted even stricter safeguards.

Since 2003, the numbers of citizens approving the monitoring of people’s Internet usage and telephone calls has increased by about 12 percentage points (in each case).

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