"Digital dictatorship" – Prisoners in the new world?
Dialogue forum, 12 April 2018
It is virtually impossible to leave no traces behind in the digital world. Data are being collected, analysed and stored everywhere. With the help of artificial intelligence, individual behaviour patterns can be quickly identified. The right to self-determination in the digital world can easily fall by the wayside. Can we still win the battle for individual freedom?
Artificial intelligence permeates our everyday life – and in the future, it will be taking many of our decisions. The new technology brings opportunities, as for example if autonomous cars can reduce the number of road deaths. In the field of medicine, entirely new possibilities are also opening up. On the other hand, artificial intelligence poses new dangers, the key word being manipulation. For example, politicians can try to win elections through the use of "nudging" – the directing of human behaviour using psychological and technological tricks. Companies, on the other hand, use such techniques because they want to encourage customers to buy their products.
One problem is that we often disclose personal data voluntarily, indeed willingly. Daniel Steil, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of FOCUS Online, had this warning for the audience: "When we decide to depict our lives in social networks, we turn the switch to "always on" – and it is then virtually impossible to switch back without leaving traces." For this reason, he has never posted a photo of his daughter on the network, because he believes she should be allowed to decide herself at a later date what kind of presence she wishes to have on the network. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google – who US author Scott Galloway calls "the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" – all know more about us then we would like. "Google is able to reconstruct our daily routines," Steil explained. "It knows exactly where we are and when. Apple – through the iPhone – and Facebook also have data about our movements".
Learning curve to acquire digital competence
Dr. Thilo Weichert, former Federal State Commissioner for Data Protection in Schleswig-Holstein, also see shortcomings in the political arena. "In the 20th century, Germany was a global driver and role model for data protection; today, German politicians have become delayers and obstructionists," he said. There is now a high-level data protection ordinance in Europe that the German federal government wishes to block. This is partly to protect the economic interests of companies in relation to big data. "Thank goodness the attempt failed," he said. If industry wants a greater degree of digitalisation, data protection must be improved at the same time. The objective must be to prevent the totalitarian concepts that are being followed and are technically possible. Weichert is highly critical: "The coalition agreement makes no attempt to look at design-related issues. That is a catastrophe."
He believes Europe should take a fundamentally different path in terms of digitalization from the USA or China. The requirements for this are already in place, since Europe already has a General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that is firmly anchored in legislation. The lawyer and political scientist outlined what the digital future might look like: "We need a control on algorithms, one that is carried out by people, not computers, to ensure that ethical principles are followed." Ethical standards can only be worked out through cultural discourse in our society; it should not be left to machines. Weichert cited China as a negative example, where the government is establishing a social credit system that stores people’s positive and negative behaviour. "So someone who has a lot of credits is allowed to travel to the West, while people at the other end of the scale face imprisonment," Weichert explained.
A level playing field for data protection
However, the major problem remains that many people voluntarily submit to the digital dictatorship, and are unable, for example, to live without social networks. "31 million Germans are on Facebook, and 79 per cent of them use the service at least once a day," Steil pointed out. He does not believe that the digital corporations will voluntarily ensure greater data protection. "Unless some tough decisions are reached in Brussels, we will not obtain a fair market." Weichert agreed with this opinion: "Alongside enhanced awareness in the population, regulation is a key tool." Specific areas of the brain can be triggered by addictive substances such as alcohol and cigarettes – and also social media – and the government has enforced restrictions for such products. Data protection specialist, Weichert, sounded a word of warning: "The problem is that politicians often have no idea about the basic questions that determine our digital lives."
Surfing anonymously, making use of alternatives
Because the experts all agreed on one thing: the answer should not be to shift the responsibility entirely onto the citizen as the end user. Even assuming that future generations are equipped with adequate digital media competence, the government still needs to meet its protective duty by introducing regulations. Europe can play a pioneering role in this context – and Germany has still a long way to go.
The next Dialogue Forum will take place on 16 May 2018 on the subject of "Work environment 4.0 – Of robots and men".
23 April 2018
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