Verbraucherschutztag-Vortrag

Address to the German Data Protection Conference.

On 03 Jun 2013, F.A.Z. feuilleton publisher Frank Schirrmacher gave a talk titled “Information as a fetish: Consumer protection in the new information economy” at Germany’s national Data Protection Conference. Some of his thoughts:

“Data protection in the information economy will become a job that is very politically important. It will have… to develop into an instrument that secures freedom.”

“It’s become normal for us, we journalists and you [data protection officers] too, some of you, to talk about spying. About spying on people in every possible way in the internet. About tracking, about data hunters and data kraken. It’s no accident that we use all this vocabulary from intelligence services and spy agencies. In this sense, data protection must be intelligent counter-intelligence. It must disclose the operational and systemic rationality of the algorithms, so people can understand at all what texts are being written elsewhere about their lives and what conclusions can be drawn from those texts. … We must thus end a kind of illiteracy about these matters.”

He said today’s situation isn’t Orwellian because Orwell described an open suppression system. It’s more Brave New World: “In Orwell they burned books; in Brave New World books just aren’t read.”

“Data protection in our world’s future will have the actual task of becoming personality protection. The inviolability of the person, which all of us believe in as a basic principle, presents completely new challenges in a digital age. To quote again from Eric Schmidt’s book, and he is entirely right about this, when he writes, ‘Identity,’ in other words personality, ‘will be the most important raw material for burghers of the future, and identity will primarily exist online.'”

“Consumers don’t just buy a product. …They are actually becoming products. …They are read when they buy things, they are read when they move around, they are even read when they are reading, paying, even thinking as we now know. …In the age of ‘big data’ everything has the potential to be a market, including politics and social life. When even the most private acts, as is possible today, make people into market participants, such as reading an ebook, then conversely it’s clear that even the most private space can become the object of market research, and increasingly at a stage before the consumer is aware of it.”

He said we can’t go back to analog. We can’t switch the tracking off either. Even if we manage to not be recorded by our own devices, other people’s devices are recording us. Also, some companies keep lists of everyone who chooses to opt out.

The question of anonymity is in many cases already over because of the patterns that can be spotted now (last year): so many behaviors can be a fingerprint or a voice print. Consumers must learn what patterns of theirs are being read.

Proposals:

  • “The question of how to handle data I think must be anchored in our society as firmly as the status of a physician’s confidentiality and responsibility. We know that a huge number of people are being educated for big data, who will evaluate these data for companies. On the whole, we need in our society an awareness that these data are a judgment about personality. Whether a consumer will get a loan, has a future at his job, etc.”
  • “We need what the Americans call ‘external algorithmicians.’ Meaning, we can’t all understand what’s going on there. So, as was the case for nuclear power for example, scientists will have to verify, from the other side so to speak, what’s working and what isn’t working. Or Stiftung Warentest, the consumer testing magazines, who use their fantastic technical expertise in counter-intelligence, so to speak. That’s what I mean by counter-intelligence: countercheck how a system is functioning. And we need this for algorithms too. We will need people who are capable, if it’s possible at all, of decoding these algorithms and then telling people, okay. If you just spent ten days messing around on Facebook, you can assume that this and this are now known about you.”
  • “Finally, at the European level: We are all seeking a vision for Europe. We can see that in the information economy, together with globalization, two supersystems are arising. Of course the U.S.A. on the one hand, and the second one is Asia, especially China. Europe is looking so hard for its own task, vision and identity. We have a different history, after all. Admirers of Silicon Valley should always be told that it was subsidized by the state for decades. Into the 1980’s. Silicon Valley did not arise from entrepreneurship alone. In that sense, one should ask whether we want to continue to make ourselves dependent on systems that exclusively come from the U.S.A., or whether we in Europe might not also want to use government subventions… whether we might not want, as some other countries are doing, to build up our own search engine, our own social networks, which would have the advantage that they could be new designs.”

 

(Fair BROW chh ah shoo uts tah chh   FORE trah chh.)

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