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German Angst vs. artificial intellect

Germans’ sensitivity to protection of personal data is as typical of them as hard work and orderliness. In late May this year, a new law on protection of personal data came into force in Europe, aimed at returning control to citizens over their personal information and t bringing the national legislations in this area to a common denominator. In Germany, the supporters of the new law name it revolution in the area of data protection, while the sceptics refer to it as a shot into the knee for the technical progress of Europe, primarily for development of the intellectual intellect and the blockchain, the technology of the future.

Personal data are only for the doctor


Several months ago, I had to install the Telegram messenger, as my German friend flatly refused to have Whatsapp or a Facebook account. “I am not going to share my personal data with Americans!”, he raged. “How about Russians? You are going to share it with them? Well, thank you for your trust”, — I replied, explaining the origin of the founder of Telegram Pavel Durov to him. My friend did not know what to say to that; however, he did not change his position, so, I had to install the messenger banned by Roskomnadzor.

According to the survey published in Harvard Business Review, most Germans (86 per cent) agree to share their personal data without any reservations only with their doctor, while only 27 and 24 per cent of them are prepared to have information about them published in Facebook or in LinkedIn. In Germany, Facebook is generally less popular than in most other [European] countries — on average, about 35 per cent of Germans use it, whereas in many [European] countries this figure often reaches 50. Many Germans refuse from shop discount cards, not willing to share information about their shopping potential with the marketing department, and take time to send emails to online sellers with requests to delete their personal data from all the servers.

Germany is a white spot on the Google Street View maps


For the same reason, all the attempts to find free wi-fi in Germany always fail — at best, you will be told the password for the local network, and in the worst case, you will have to register. In response to your indignation, you will always hear the word ‘Datenschutz‘, ‘data protection‘ in German.

Here is an interesting story which occurred nearly ten years ago with the Google Street View service. When Google decided to photo more than 20 large German cities for the German version of the service, Germans rebelled. Up to a million (1) telephone calls were made to Google every day from Germany — the angry Germans demanded that their houses should be retouched. The concern agreed and fully (not partially) retouched all the appealed objects and began to receive group complaints, for example, from residents of apartment buildings. So, what was left from Germany on the Google Street View map? Almost nothing.

Several months ago, Google again agitated the public by the promise that in September this year, it would send hundreds of its cars to the streets of Germany. The concern hurried to ensure the public that the data would be collected exclusively for internal use, in order to improve the other services of the company, primarily the Google Maps service.

The hair color and political views


The Federal Data Protection Law was first adopted back in1977, later to be upgraded as modern technologies developed; however, every time it was subject to harsh criticism for its imperfections. The General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, enacted on May 25 this year and meant to toughen the legislation in this sphere even further, runs that its violation may result in a penalty up to 20 million Euro, or 4% of the annual turnover. In the case with Google, the penalty amount may reach several billion dollars.

Under this regulation, personal data are understood not only as the date and place of birth or the number of the bank card but, for example, information on political or religious views, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, but also the hair color, height, sex, the IP-address, and much else. A month after enactment of the new law, the agencies in charge already noticed a rise in the inflow of complaints relating to violations of the GDPR — over the recent 30 days, they received more of them than over the whole last year.

Incompatibility with machine learning


In the issue of data protection, Germany is standing, like a legendary hero, at the crossroads: if it goes right, it will disclose a hypothetical citizen’s date of birth or hair color; if it goes left, it will forever get stuck in the global digital race. In the opinion of numerous experts, data protection in the sense of GDPR and such methods of artificial intellect as machine learning and deep learning are hardly compatible. “Germany and Europe have literally shot themselves in the knee, having passed the GDPR“, — considers Pascal Finette, the CEO of the American non-profit organization Fastrack Institute, which studies the introduction of modern technologies to the society. According to him, now America and China will grasp at the competitive strength in developing the technologies based on processing big data.

The end of a blockchain?


For the new popular technology of information storage, the blockchain, the new EU law will not go unnoticed, either, as the very idea of the new technology disagrees with one of the four cornerstones of the GDPR — the right to be forgotten. It is possible to delete a chain of blocks from this decentralized system only with the consent of the majority of users. Considering its rising popularity, it will be more and more difficult to do. Experts note that in development of the GDPR, which started back in 2012, the blockchain and similar technologies were simply not taken into consideration, while now stock exchanges working with bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies are running great risks.
“If we overdo with data protection, we will interfere with advancement of such key digital technologies as big data and artificial intellect. So far, we have not yet been able to reach the actual balance between protection of privacy and data use”, — considers the President of the German Union of Information and Computer Technologies BITKOM Achim Berg.

According to the study conducted by the Union, artificial intellect- or blockchain-based technologies are used only by 11% and 6% companies in Germany, respectively. And the German business names Datehschutz, data protection, as the main barrier on the way of the spread of these advanced technologies.

The German angst


While earlier Germans feared inflation and the economic crisis, now they are more and more often afraid of disclosure or abuse of their personal data. The British were the first to construe panic without reason — this is why the German word ‘angst‘ appeared in the English wordstock. The German borrowing ‘angst’ indicates inexplicable anxiety, fear of something undefined, unfathomable, and, perhaps, even non-existing. Sticking to its phobias, high-tech Germany is risking losing its chance in the digital revolution.

Personal data are the new currency. And the stingy Germans are not going to part with it.
© Irina Mikhailina

Irina Mikhailina


Irina was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Maurice Thorez Linguistic University and received her master’s degree from Berlin Humboldt University. She is a linguist specializing in Germanic languages. Lives in Berlin.

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