In 1905, Carl and Bertha Benz purchased this villa. Here the inventor of the car lived until his death in 1929. It has since been purchased by Daimler-Benz Foundation, which uses it as its headquarters. © Daimler and Benz Foundation / Oestergard

The big data world: Interview with Professor Alexander Rossnagel at Daimler Foundation about data privacy

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In 1905, Carl and Bertha Benz purchased this villa. Here the inventor of the car lived until his death in 1929. It has since been purchased by Daimler-Benz Foundation, which uses it as its headquarters. © Daimler and Benz Foundation / Oestergard
In 1905, Carl and Bertha Benz purchased this villa. Here the inventor of the car lived until his death in 1929. It has since been purchased by Daimler-Benz Foundation, which uses it as its headquarters. © Daimler and Benz Foundation / Oestergard

A Daimler-Benz symposium about science in the modern world, due to be attended by a number of experts at the historic building originally owned by Carl and Bertha Benz, will discuss the issue of privacy in a data-hungry world 

In today’s digital world, it is possible to produce a complete data profile of any individual in a very short time. 

Virtual and real information mix, so that the behaviour of individuals and of society in every aspect is observable, and theoretically predictable and controllable.

It could be said that today’s man is a “data man” – which is a term some people are using. But what does this mean?

At the 20th Berlin Colloquium of the Daimler and Benz Foundation, distinguished experts discussed the importance of these developments for the individual and society.

Moreover, the scientific director of the event, legal scholar Professor Dr Alexander Rossnagel, gave a interview in which he elaborated on some of the most important issues in our big data world.

What do you hope to gain from this academic conference by Daimler and Benz Foundation?

Rossnagel: The Berlin Colloquium represents an excellent platform to gather information about data protection and targeted place. We can bring the contents of which are indeed highly relevant for our entire society, in the public and discuss with participants, colleagues and experts. It is not enough to discuss the problem solely in specialised circles. Finally, we need to think together about how we want to shape our lives today and in the future.

What do you understand by the term “data man”?

The phenomenon “data man” or “information man” poses a dilemma. The data shadows [data from continuous monitoring of an individual as though the information-collector were a shadow following him around], provided by the digital duplication [or cloning] of a man is, on the one hand, very helpful. But the shadow follows us everywhere. Everything that a man does and says and even thinks – his individuality – is now also available in bits and bytes.

What does this mean for our society, for our freedom and self-determination?

Knowledge is power, and the one who knows much about others, has power. Companies now know more about the population, although this is something of a secret.

Companies and others know the habits, attitudes and preferences of the individual and also know about his communications, his relationships, his links with other groupings and communication.

Briefly, there is a concentration of power in companies in terms of knowledge about social structures.

This knowledge is power, they are able to control people, suppress and even – to drive to suicide – by divulging embarrassing information. In our country, we have great social power but it is legitimate and fundamentally democratic, normalised by law to be limited and controlled.

How do you rate the level of knowledge about privacy within companies? Is it too low, or it is not important to people? 

The state of knowledge in society I do not consider too low – most people know about the subject at least.

More problematic is rather the paradox behind the knowledge. Although we know about the dangers of an erosion of privacy, it nevertheless gives companies and others advantages in providing Internet and other services, which are commercial and data-driven.

The risks to privacy and civil liberties are hidden or downgraded in favour of an immediate commercial or other advantage. Future disadvantages are left for us to consider far in the future, and therefore to act at the moment would be to discuss matters in the abstract.

Where do you see in this context, the greatest danger?

The resulting feeling of being watched constantly. This has also been considered by the Constitutional Court and some opinions formulated.

If the individual has to expect to be registered and monitored at an event, he may refrain from participation. So he may decide to avoid taking part for fear of losing his basic rights.

By computing the result, by monitoring people in this way, pressure is placed on individuals to conform.

Transferring this scenario to the issue of elections, one can estimate how important it is for the freedom of the individual not to be registered electronically. For if he is registered electronically, he may have to deal with many pressures to conform exerted from many different sources.

Which companies are now the rulers of our data?

These are primarily the Internet companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple or Google.

What legal powers exist and how they make at present?

At the moment, the new European Data Protection Regulations are being developed and formulated. It improves the level of data protection overall at the European level, but for Germany it brings considerable disadvantages.

There was a lot of controversy during the legislative process – the controversy over breaks for companies and the protection of private data.

As a result, the regulation conceded in Brussels compromise has ultimately many gaps. Many clauses also allow Member States to adopt different rules. In Germany, a struggle for the design and configuration of the Data Protection Regulations will occur.

What do you rate as being particularly critical in the European Data Protection Regulation?

They are not oriented to the risk of modern technology applications. It applies the same rules to all companies – whether it is the local baker, who leads a customer list, or for a company like Google. The problem here is that each type of company has very different amounts and types of data.

In addition, the Data Protection Regulation is too little complex and there are many gaps. The data processing in Europe is, in my view, inadequate.

How do you protect your personal information?

I try with a reasonable effort to practice privacy and encrypt my emails, avoid chat programs, and use a search engine that does not store my IP address.

However, I am not completely free of the paradox already mentioned. My personal contribution to privacy I perform mainly on the jurisprudence.

What is your forecast for the next 10 years?

Information technology is subject to a high dynamic – it changes all the time. There are other inventions for applications to come within a very short time to market. They may not all make money or cost a lot of money to acquire, but they are all data-intensive.

If we want to have solutions for dealing with the phenomenon of “data people”, we must be clear about what we want as a society now. Because the data-gathering companies will acquire more and more areas of life and use our personal data for new services, and they will add this to their overall picture of a human life – as they see it or want to see it.


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