The Double-Faced Digital Revolution
Until now we, as simple “users,” have given little thought to where this profound technical change will lead us.
October 21, 2013
Never before have so many people had access to so much information. Never before has it been so simple to make contact with like-minded people around the world. Never before has it been so easy to use technology to organize resistance to authoritarian regimes.
Sometimes I think: if only we had had an opportunity back then in Central and Eastern Europe to network with each other in such a way!
The digital technologies are platforms for joint action, they drive innovation and prosperity, foster democracy and freedom and – not least – they make our everyday lives so much easier. They guide us to our destination, serve as dictionaries, playgrounds and chat rooms and they replace both the visit to the bank and the journey to work.
Until now we, as simple “users,” have given little thought to where this profound technical change will lead us. Only when reports of data collection practiced by friendly intelligence services emerged were we forced to confront a reality which we had previously deemed unimaginable. It was only then that many became aware of the danger posed to our privacy.
Thirty years ago, Germany’s citizens demonstrated spirited opposition to a national census. In the end, the right to determine what information you do or do not provide did prevail. And today? Today, with every click on the Internet people voluntarily or thoughtlessly offer up their personal data. And the younger among us lay bare their whole lives on social networks.
Whether we are being intruded upon or are simply exposing ourselves is now practically one and the same. All forms of privacy are fading away.
Giving away our privacy
Our forefathers once used to fight for privacy against the state, and in totalitarian regimes, preserving it helped us to shield ourselves from being coerced or having our political views pried into. Rather than posing a threat, publicity now seems to offer the hope of appreciation and recognition.
Many do not realize, or simply do not want to know that they are complicit in the creation of the virtual twin to their real life self. Their alter ego who reveals, or could reveal, both their strengths and weaknesses. It could disclose their failures or deficiencies or could even divulge sensitive information about illnesses.
All of this makes the individual more transparent, readily analyzed and easily manipulated by agencies, politics, commerce and the labor market.
That the digital revolution is double faced is particularly evident in the workplace. Many employees embrace new technology because it enables them to work from home or in a cafe, and to freely choose their own working hours. At the same time, the line between work and free time is blurring, which can mean availability around the clock.
Catching laws up to technology
Historically speaking, spurts of development are nothing new. When we first experience them we are perplexed, maybe even powerless. Naturally, laws conventions and social norms trail and cannot keep up easily with technological developments.
As with every innovation, the time has come for us to act as informed and empowered citizens. Thus data protection should become to the preservation of privacy what environmental protection is to the conservation of natural resources.
We want to make use of the advantages of the digital world, while protecting ourselves as best we can from its disadvantages.
What we must do now is find solutions on the political, societal, ethical and practical levels. What is a liberal state allowed, or indeed obliged to do in secret in order for intelligence services to protect its citizens?
And what is it not allowed to do, so that freedom might not fall victim to security? What kind of a labor market do we need, to ensure that the ever-available employee does not become a slave to the digital world?
How can family links and friendships co exist with virtual relationships? How can children and young people use the Internet without falling prey to it?
We therefore need laws, conventions and social agreements that take account of this groundbreaking change.
In democracies in particular, policymakers must react as soon as a problem appears on the horizon and constantly realign as it takes shape. In fact, this is one of the strengths of democracy.
Whether we are being intruded upon or are simply exposing ourselves is now practically one and the same.
As with every innovation, the time has come for us to act as empowered citizens.
Data protection should be to privacy preservation what environmental protection is to conservation of resources.