Warm-Up 2, article to read

How technology, companies and state actors are challenging our right to privacy and digital self-determination.

Privacy in the 90s

In 1996, at the beginning of the commercial internet, I was fortunate to build up the technical support, technical training and later the consulting division of the company with an international internet and e-commerce pioneer. This time shaped me a lot.

Shortly after I started there, the commercial co-founder of the company asked me to send advertising emails to all customers of an eCommerce shop before Christmas. I really struggled with that. At that time it was against the so-called Nettiquette (RFC 1855, rfc1855 ) to send other people unsolicited messages by e-mail.

Luckily the co-founder just forgot about his brief and I never had to send that email. Today, that old RFC reads like a droll fragment from another time, and fighting off unwanted e-mails is a part of life, like annoying flies in the summer.

Digital revolution with unlimited possibilities and business areas

But the Internet and the so-called digital revolution (which includes, for example, smartphones, cloud computing, video telephony, e-commerce) have produced services that enable us to be extremely fast and networked. Barriers of space (I need to travel from A to B) to make a difference or time (which I need for a long journey) have been broken down. The wheels suddenly turned faster and faster.

If I want to visit a customer in San Francisco today, I can organize the trip including flight, hotel and rental car in 20 minutes via my smartphone. But I can also decide to use the time more efficiently and set up a video conference with my customer. This digital revolution and speed has now created completely new business models and made old ones disappear. And the revolution continues with digital currencies, artificial intelligence and quantum computing .

Interventions in our freedom rights – the first side effects are becoming visible

This digital revolution made it possible to globalize new business models almost immediately. This mostly took place unobserved by government regulation. One simply got going. Converted what the technology gave. Basic rights of users were generally not taken into account. This enabled unprecedented intrusions into the privacy of billions of people.

… through technology

Mobile devices – and apps available on them – can track what we are doing and where we are. They make it possible to understand who we talk to, when and how often, where we go. You may also be able to eavesdrop on us.

Biometric technologies make it possible to identify us through facial recognition, retinal scans, voice, movement, breathing, and many other features.

Surveillance cameras and microphones are no longer only used for local security, but also allow us to create movement profiles (e.g. in combination with face recognition).

Artificial intelligence (AI) can, for example, evaluate biometric surveillance features and metadata extremely quickly and link them to person profiles. In the future, more and more AI-based algorithms will make decisions about us.

Cash is increasingly being pushed out of the picture. Countries will switch to electronic currencies, providers more and more to electronic payments. These payments are easily traceable and can be assigned to individuals.

… through companies

Most of the Internet services and technologies that are always available and often free to use make our lives easier in many areas. Good examples are navigation, searching the Internet, in social communication, office communication, shopping, relaxation. These services are now offered by a small number of globally active Internet companies.

These companies were usually among the first providers of these services (“first movers”) on the market and were able to retain an extremely large number of users. These companies founded the so-called surveillance capitalism. I highly recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s great book on this subject.

Regardless of whether the services are paid or free, these companies use our personal data to develop new, more sophisticated digital business models. They don’t see us as customers, but as their product.

Because of our faith in these companies, their growth and profits are huge.

Thanks to the central platforms, these companies have a worldwide, almost limitless reach and sometimes hundreds of millions of users.

Due to the largely unregulated international working methods, these companies can manipulate their users.

They exercise censorship – what is shown, found or published on their platforms and what is deleted or who is excluded. They intervene in political processes and determine what truth is.

In my eyes, these companies are now more influential, financially strong and yes, more powerful than local governments and nation states. They are on the way to replacing our previous governments in their importance.

… by our governments and state actors

Our governments and their politicians are committed to the voter and should also actively work for the digital well-being of their citizens in an increasingly digital world. This also results from the fundamental right to self-determination. Everyone should be able to move and make decisions freely in the digital world.

Unfortunately, however, it is more likely that our governments are also disproportionately interested in our private data. They tend to criminalize us citizens across the board. As a rule, people want to store the private data of all citizens in order to find few criminals.

As a rule, it is presented as if these restrictions on fundamental rights were the only way to solve crimes or ensure security. As if that were the only way to protect us from terrorism, extremism or cybercrime.

Politicians and investigative authorities often stir up a situation of fear in which every incident, every terrorist act is used to make a blanket restriction of fundamental rights appear to be the only alternative.

Examples of this trend are:

  • European data retention of all telephone data of 500 million Europeans
  • a German identity card with our fingerprints
  • attempts to criminalize or thwart encryption of communications (an important aspect of our privacy on the Internet)

In the past, such decisions had to be corrected again and again by the courts in a cat-and-mouse game.

What does that mean?

Our “classic” basic rights, provider regulations and ethical principles have not been updated at the same speed as the Internet. Especially because successful corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are changing our world faster with their technologies.

This results in an imbalance to the disadvantage of a largely unenlightened, unprotected mass of users. I want to help correct this imbalance.

Please help and join:

  • Explain to people why sovereignty over their data is important.
  • Help your family and friends make better decisions about their privacy.
  • Explain to others how you can successfully defend your digital privacy despite legal grievances.
  • Get involved and also exert political influence – for a fundamental right to digital self-determination and privacy.

Sources, tips and links for further reading