BERLIN Germany's biggest credit agency stirred up concerns about data privacy on Thursday after announcing it planned to gather information from social media websites to help measure users' creditworthiness.
Government ministers urged the Schufa agency to be fully transparent over how it uses the information, and ordinary Germans joined in with ironic comments on Twitter about selling off high-earning Facebook friends to those wanting to boost their credit score.
"Schufa cannot become the Big Brother of the business world," Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner told the Munich Merkur newspaper. "Social networks should not be systematically mined for sensitive data that would influence the credit ratings of clients."
Echoing that comment, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told Spiegel Online: "Schufa and other credit agencies must fully disclose their intentions on how they will use Facebook data to determine creditworthiness."
Schufa has said its three-year project, launched on Tuesday in collaboration with a leading German IT institute, the Hasso-Plattner Institute (HPI), fully respects internet privacy laws.
"The goal of the project is to analyze and research web data," it said in a brief statement issued on Tuesday which gave little other information about the project.
Astrid Kasper, head of business communications at Schufa, defended the plans on NDR radio late on Wednesday.
"Schufa is asking itself what consequences the technological development of the internet will have for its own business prospects," she said.
NDR said Schufa would gather data on relationships, listed interests, addresses and other private details from a range of online media sources including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
"Web-generated information will be linked to other information through Schufa and evaluated from a business perspective," NDR quoted extracts from Schufa's project proposal as saying.
Schufa was not available for further comment on Thursday, a religious holiday in parts of Germany.
Germans are known for their strong attachment to internet privacy and are unlikely to welcome an initiative that will, to many, resemble more intrusive American-style data collecting for business purposes.
A new political party, the Pirates, has made sweeping gains in several local elections in recent months on a platform of data protection and free internet downloads.
The Pirates were among several political parties to criticize the Schufa project on Thursday, calling it an "attack on the right of people to control their own information".
Schufa's own website said it currently receives data belonging to some 66 million users in an information exchange between the credit agency and the companies it serves.
Its project triggered some wry comment among Germany's social media users.
"Dear Schufa, won't tweet much today, going to buy my new Porsche and then off to coast to drink champagne," was one typically tongue-in-cheek remark posted on Twitter.
(Editing by Gareth Jones and Tim Pearce)