Herr postman spies on homes for advertisers

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The Independent Online
BEWARE OF postmen bearing clipboards. Big Brother, Germans have discovered, is the man or woman with the friendly smile who delivers letters.

Germans, many of whom still recall the file-gathering habits of the Gestapo and Stasi, have been scandalised by revelations that the post office has put together a databank covering just about every citizen. The information is being sold to advertisers.

Nobody asked why postmen were taking notes during their rounds until an innocuous article in the post office's in-house magazine revealed all. In the new commercial spirit, the company announced, it had launched a new service: snooping on demand.

Who else, but the people who visit every home in the land, can find out more about the habits of its citizens? The task may be great, but in the postal worker the post office has vast resources. The post office has created 56 categories of Germans, based on their homes. Do they live in a detached house, a semi, terrace or block of flats, a questionnaire asks. Is there a garden, and if so, how big is it, and in what condition? How old is the building, and is it well-kept? Is its location favourable? Is there a garage or, better, a double garage?

The answers are invaluable to a company selling lawn-mowers, for instance. Or to a car dealership, or just about anyone wanting to sell something. Properly collated, the post office's latter-day Domesday Book can let advertisers zoom in on big-spenders and stop wasting time on the poor

The post office itself is anything but modest about the power of its "unique" investigations. "The data on places of residence can be combined with socio-demographic and statistical aspects, for instance with the age, purchasing power and consumption habits of the residents," its brochure boasts.

No doubt advertisers are impressed, but Germans are scandalised by this sort of thing, and have laws against it. Germany has some of the most restrictive regulations on the protection of individual data, preventing, for instance, its own spying apparatus from efficient snooping.

Stung by criticism of its new line of business, the post office was forced to issue a statement yesterday denying its own claims of efficiency. Individuals cannot be identified by its methods, the company said.

Politicians and human rights groups are not so sure. "If I were to inform someone that the people living at Number Three Hochstrasse are probably rich, drive two cars and have a swimming pool, you can work out their names even if I did not give their names," said Helmut Baumler, head of the data protection agency of Schleswig-Holstein.

The head of the national data protection agency is now investigating.