The Others Need You

As a privacy expert you become paranoid.  I learn almost every day what is technically feasible and what people, companies and authorities already do with data. In my daily routines and especially my discussions with experts I almost forgot the others. The others who are different to me, different to you and tech or privacy experts. The others who are the majority and need a counsellor. Us.

Recently I went to an event in Berlin where the author Tom Hillenbrand introduced his new book “Drone Land” (original German title “Drohnenland“). Before the author read from his book the moderator asked the audience who of them doesn’t have a smart phone. Almost 40% of the audience raised their hands. I was shocked.

The average age of the attendees was 50+ and the event was not hosted by any tech, start up or legal company. So, I shouldn’t have been shocked. The reading was part of a cultural event series with the title “complexity” and “normal people” were invited. Although I guess that most of them were of higher education they seemed to be surprised of and somehow “confused” by the fictional crime story Hillenbrand described in his book. He read about the technical abilities of the protagonist, a police officer who uses methods like “mirroring” to view or go to other places, wears glasses called “specs” and uses data in a totally natural way to chase criminals. For me it was (almost) the reality, for the others fiction.

People are interested in this new “fictional” digital world. But this new world is very abstract and intangible and consequently it is very difficult to understand and identify threads as well as benefits. We approach new situations in our life by comparing them with known circumstances. For example, we learn that an apple is generally healthy. As long as it looks like an apple we won’t question that it is good for us. When someone tells you that the apple is genetically manipulated you think maybe that this is unnatural.  But as long as no one you trust and who seems to know more about genetic manipulation tells you about any negative impact on your health you will very much likely eat it. That applies especially if the apple is cheaper or easier to buy than the “normal” apple. On the long run you won’t question it anymore because you adapt your behaviour and consciousness what is healthy and what isn’t.

And the same goes with data. Firstly people are curious about digitisation, they hesitate but usually try digital or online services that provide convenience or solve a daily problem or challenge: GPS, bluetooth or WiFi tracking to provide location based services like discounts next to your place or the shortest route to a friend. Address books are matched millions of times to make it possible for people to keep in touch with each other. Health data is tracked via different smart phones and wearables so that we can meet the expectation of an “always-young-and-good-looking” person and compete with others we most of the time don’t now.

Although the majority doesn’t understand what is happening within digital services they use them. And they even accept or don’t think about authorities which use data to supposedly protect our freedom unless someone tells them. And exactly the latter should be the job of data privacy experts. And I don’t mean that we should protect the majority that embraces any convenience in our global information driven digital world. Moreover, we need to be very careful not to patronise those who aren’t data experts by requiring inconvenient settings for digital services (e.g. long texts concerning a consent no one pays attention to – except lawyers). And we should stop keeping alive organisational structures that lead to confusion and less privacy (e.g. 17 independent data protection authorities in Germany).

Data privacy experts – in parallel to my apple example – should concentrate on understanding and assessing the risks for our fundamental rights like free speech, freedom of press and religious freedom. Our or at least my paranoia can be very helpful actually to identify threads caused by data processing in various contexts. And it is very helpful to distinguish real threads to fundamental rights (e.g. data retention) from simple non-intrusive data processing (e.g. cookie based tracking for advertisement).

If we understand our task in the digital world not as an advocate of data but as an advocate of fundamental rights the majority will not only see data privacy experts as geeks but trust our judgement. In doing so, we can contribute to a free self-determined digital life with data.

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