Yvonne Hofstetter on Big Data
“We Carry The Bugging Device Around With Us In Our Pockets”

Yvonne Hofstetter
Yvonne Hofstetter | Photo (detail): © C. Bertelsmann

Yvonne Hofstetter is herself the managing director of a company that processes and evaluates huge amounts of data. In her book “Sie wissen alles” (They Know All) she calls for a better way of dealing with the digital revolution.

Mrs Hofstetter, “Big data confronts the individual with business models that call our democratic idea of society, our basic rights and the nature of the human being into question.” This sentence from your book reveals just how critically you view the rise of Big Data technologies. What is Big Data?

Big Data is a marketing term to describe services connected with the acquisition, storage and further processing of huge amounts of data. Behind it, however, there are artificial intelligence technologies lurking that have the purpose of analysing, predicting and controlling. These technologies are not new, they were developed 20 years ago for the military, back then they were called “multi-sensor data fusion”. What happens is – many sensors collect data from all kinds of sources, in the military they might be, for example, the spoken word, images or radio waves. The second step is then to use all this data to create a situation analysis – what is the military situation?

And now these technologies are being applied to the way we live our lives?

Yes, we, too, have a lot of data to offer about our lives that is provided by different kinds of sensors. This crude data is processed by the same technologies to produce analyses of certain situations, for example, to answer the question – what is the situation of my finances at the moment?

“Manipulation as a business model”

Is this what the business models in the quote from your book at the beginning of the interview focus on?

Yes, exactly that: on bugging, on analysing, on predicting and on manipulating. Our smart phones, our tablets, have been built in such a way that they are geared perfectly to supporting these business models. We are actually carrying the bugging device around with us in our pockets. It really is all about tapping into our personal data. This is why so many things around us have been fitted with sensor technology. Think of the Berlin Wall that came down 25 years ago. Back then the GDR buried measuring devices under the wall, sensors, to detect whether anybody was trying to dig a tunnel under it. It is because of such things that we refer to the GDR as an unjust “rogue” state, but today it is quite normal for Internet giants to trick us into accepting similar devices.

Everybody is no doubt in agreement when it comes to the sensors under the Wall – they served an evil purpose, namely deprivation of liberty and oppression. But what if I only post on Facebook that I have just finished with my fiancé …

What? Not good at all for your creditworthiness! If you have just put an end to your engagement, your bank will think in future, “Oh, the woman is unreliable, the social network around her is coming apart at the seams, so we won’t grant her any credit facilities.” That can ruin a person’s future.

Has it already come to that or is that a future scenario?

I am afraid it is already happening. Coutts Bank in Great Britain, for example, is doing today what only the police were allowed to do 15 years ago, namely network analysis – who is related to whom, who is friends with whom, and so on? Anything I express or voice via the Internet is picked up on, evaluated and goes into calculating my creditworthiness. It has an enormous effect on my future when suddenly certain information about me is made known and about which I know nothing …

… information that might also be wrong.

That is the problem we have with the assessment of sources. A really dangerous thing for a democracy. Why? As Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” If information is false, then even the sovereign forms the wrong opinion. When it comes to the Internet, however, no assessment of sources takes place at all. On top of that it can also be the case that the model on which a statistic is based is a bad one. It might not be a case of a calculation error, but the information that comes out in the end is false. “Shit in, shit out” as we say in the field of programming.

“Minimise your data”

What would you advise people who want to prevent their personal data being tapped into?

They should minimise their data. I, for example, have got rid of my smart phone, I drive an old car without any of the new technologies. I subscribe to neither Facebook nor Twitter.

Among other things you are demanding the right to have control over personal data and, if it is used, we should receive some kind of service in return. As this is being disregarded, you are calling for some form of civil disobedience or resistance.

Yes, for we, our society, have a great deal of power in our hands. We are the other half of the capitalism equation – if we refuse to cooperate, the Internet giants will have a problem. The situation is like this – at the moment we are simply objects of economic exploitation for the Big Data industry, they can do what they like with us. The human being cannot just be a component within a system. He is more than that – he is creation.

At the end of your book one is really quite surprised to read – we don’t need less technology.

What I actually say is – we don’t need less technology, we need better technology. We have to accept the fact that we must deal with this cultural, this digital revolution. The question is, however – how can we bring it into an even balance with the rights of man?

Yvonne Hofstetter: Sie wissen alles. Wie intelligente Maschinen in unser Leben eindringen und warum wir für unsere Freiheit kämpfen müssen; Bertelsmann, 2014.