Big Data Smart New World?

Personal Privacy
Personal Privacy | Photo (detail): © forkART Photography - Fotolia.com

More and more of our personal data are being collected and analysed. This has lots of advantages, making our lives increasingly efficient. In reality, however, critics claim that the price we are paying for this is far too high.

Surely it makes sense for someone who takes good care of their health to pay less for their health insurance than someone who smokes, drinks and takes too little exercise? This would simply require sufficient personal data to be gathered to proove it – data that a health-conscious person might well be already collecting himself or herself, using for example a neat wristband that counts the number of steps they take and measures their heart rate. And might this not even motivate the other person – the one with the unhealthy lifestyle – to change his or her habits and become a bit more healthy?

The logic suggested by such scenarios is persuasive: technology can help us to make a better world. All we need is enough data and then we can effectively combat the biggest problems of the present day. Disease, crime, climate change – there are straightforward technical solutions to everything. In his new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, the journalist and political scientist Evgeny Morozov writes that Google, Facebook and Apple have committed themselves to using data to save the world. “The world faces many really big challenges and our company offers the infrastructure to overcome these challenges”, he writes, citing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

An orgy of improvement

Nonetheless, for some time now there have been justified doubts about precisely this ideology, a mindset that Morozov, writing elsewhere, has also described as an “orgy of improvement”. No matter how rosy the future of an existence shaped and enhanced by fancy technology might appear, there are considerable risks associated with the collection of data – even if they may not be obvious at first glance.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, justice spokesperson of the Greens/EFA in the European parliament, says for instance that any form of gathering personal data is in fact a means of discrimination. “The more information we disclose, the easier we make it for third parties to assess us on a highly individual level.” Anyone who makes a purchase online nowadays will in some cases already be sent adverts that are tailored to their particular profile. “To all intents and purposes, the creation of comprehensive and increasingly accurate personal profiles negates the guarantee of equality because it reveals too much evidence for justifying unequal treatment.”

What Albrecht finds most alarming is the highly-automated, complex and non-transparent manner in which these profiles are already being created. Anyone who is not aware of which personal data are gathered for which purposes and which conclusions can be drawn from the combination of this information is at risk of losing “control over their own personality”. In an extreme case, this might result in people no longer taking advantage of their basic rights such as the freedom to demonstrate or the freedom of opinion out of fear that such information could have huge personal consequences for them.

Post-privacy – do we need a new understanding of privacy?

So that this does not happen, Albrecht believes that we need to fight to ensure that our fundamental right to decide for ourselves what is done with our personal data – as formulated by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court in its famous “census verdict” in 1983 – is preserved. Put simply, this means also confronting companies such as Google and Facebook with this data privacy yardstick, companies which for just these reasons have chosen to set up their European headquarters in those EU countries that have laxer privacy laws. This is exactly what a new, EU-wide data privacy ordinance that is currently being worked on in Brussels – by Albrecht, among others – hopes to achieve.

So what concrete consequences will this have on our everyday lives? Is it in fact still possible for us to decide for ourselves what happens to our data in an Internet in which it has long ceased to be the case that only information explicitly disclosed by an individual will actually be made public? In any case, surely we have long been dealing with a new concept of privacy that has little to do with the middle-class vision of an idyllic sphere of self-discovery and freedom?

A battlefield of superlatives

As the author and blogger Christian Heller writes in Post-Privacy, a book he published in 2011, the private sphere as a place where one can be oneself and achieve self-fulfilment is in fact a fairly new concept, historically speaking. It was “invented” in the nineteenth century when the middle classes began creating homes for themselves in which they felt themselves to be free from the dictates of what they perceived to be a totalitarian state. In previous epochs, the distinction between the public and the private was not nearly so sharply drawn. As Heller writes, it was still the case in the middle-class homes of the Renaissance era that “the family household merged with activities involving the street outside to give rise to a bustling chaos”.

The supporters of the post-privacy movement to which Heller also belongs believe that we find ourselves in a situation today in which our understanding of privacy will once again adapt to a fundamentally changing reality of life. Precisely because we are revealing more and more about ourselves and, according to the basic hypothesis, are also profiting increasingly as a result, the private sphere as we know it is on the way out. Following this same line of argumentation, we can no longer do anything to stop the complete interconnection of our lives in any case. But this is no bad thing – on the contrary, is it not conceivable that more data about ourselves and about others could also mean more tolerance? And that the likelihood of jumping to (over-hasty) negative conclusions would also be reduced if we only knew enough about other people?

Should we perhaps relax a bit more after all rather than immediately assuming that a loss of privacy will result in the worst case scenario of total data surveillance, as the data protection activists warn? Or is this not exactly where the problem lies: precisely because it feels so right and the benefits of us all revealing a little bit of personal information about ourselves seem so immediately obvious? The right to data privacy, writes Jan Phillip Albrecht, will become a “battlefield of superlatives between people, a regulated market economy and democracy on the one side and machines, global corporations and governments on the other side”.