Laudation: padeluun

The Big Brother Award 2009 in the category “Trends” goes to:

… so many that I hesitate to call them “winners” but would rather call them “examples”.

Ten years of Big Brother Awards in Germany – isn’t that a trend in itself? The word “trend” has its roots in Middle High German, where it means “to spin”, also “to roll downwards”. But we don’t want to be on the way down, we want to change things.

However, the trends seem to be snowballing. In spite of many successes that we gained together and even when faced with hugely embarrassing data scandals, the data leeches are not stopping their barrages. On the contrary, it seems as if they are now following the German adage¹: “Once the reputation’s shot, you get away with quite a lot!” – We must and we will fight back.

The fight is not futile.
Chorus: Aye, there is hope.

What do we all actually experience day by day?

Situations like this one, for example: I am expected to consent to having my ID card photocopied “for the files” before the car dealer of my choice will sell me a spare key for my car. Across the board, more and more people want to see my ID … and even photocopy it.

To me, this is just … improper. It still says in my book that poking one's nose in other people’s affairs just isn’t done. Same as I shouldn’t impose my private life on other people. How old-fashioned, I hear people say. Is indiscretion a matter of pride these days? Is propriety obsolete in the digitally interlinked world? Has courtesy been abolished? Is silence no longer golden? Isn’t that disgusting?

So I started a correspondence with the headquarters of my car dealer’s company. We agreed on the following procedure: The key I bought will be handed to me once I get out my ID and hold it towards Mekka for a moment, and then quickly put it away again.

The fight is not futile.
Chorus: Aye, there is hope.

Another example: associations. They often handle members’ data very carelessly. Sports clubs publish their results tables on the Internet. What used to be an honour and remained in – one is tempted to say – the “privacy” of the local section of your village newspaper, can nowadays be read back all over the world.

Who thinks twice about this?

There is just too little thinking going on.

The German Football Association (Deutscher Fußball-Bund, DFB) is a case in point. They are storing data of their 6.7 million members from some 26,000 clubs. Of the clubs’ estimated over 100,000 voluntary “data administrators”, each one has access to the data of all 6.7 million members, and thus to the mobile phone number of, say, Germany's international striker Miroslav Klose.

The DFB, by the way, received a Big Brother Award in 2005. One reason was that they made the purchase of a ticket to the 2006 World Cup depend on the buyers allowing DFB to share their personal data with third parties. This can be seen all over. The German Workers Welfare Society, Arbeiterwohlfahrt, also unashamedly couples their services with data sharing – “service restrictions or financial disadvantages“ are threatened otherwise. One principle in data protection is the prohibition of coupling, which means that the delivery of services must not be made dependent on distribution or use of personal data.² But even Germany's ex-state railway, Deutsche Bahn, couples the sale of their BahnCard100 (a one-year network card for unlimited use of the German railway system) with the disclosure of one's date of birth and a photo – which is illegal. Many business models these days are designed to demand considerably more data than would be necessary to deliver the services in question, mostly in order to sell these data to third parties and for profiling. We can’t possibly defend ourselves as much as we would need to.

The fight is not futile.
Chorus: Aye, there is hope.

Do you have a navigation system in your car? Does it store your driving behaviour and your favoured routes? BMW is developing a device that is equipped with “extracorporal intelligence“: This thing knows where you want to go before you even get into your car. But to do this, it has to – you guessed it – store the data first. What is the world coming to?

Vehicle fleet management is another creepy example. The “Navishop“ in Hamburg is advertising a product in unseemly tones: Their “TomTom Link“, they say, is a small, inconspicuous black-box, with a GPS receiver and a GSM/GPRS module along with a SIM card, that is installed in a hidden place in the vehicle. This enables automatic transmission of the vehicle’s position, mileage, and other information to the company headquarters. Now, it might make a lot more sense to be able to locate a lorry than a thresher³; but one who boasts “hidden places“ in his advertising of tracking devices just shows his perfidious lust of secret surveillance.

Another threat in this sector is coming from politicians, under the name of “section control“. Even today it is common practice to collect car number plates in some places, but under these schemes they will be registered a second time a few kilometres further down the road, and then the time elapsed between the two points computed. Arrived at point B quicker than the law will allow? Whoosh, there comes your ticket. “Big Brother“ as a fighter against speeding?

The fight is not futile.
Chorus: Aye, there is hope.

A propos “Big Brother“: You will remember the “telescreen“, the large monitor in Orwell's novel where one couldn't only see the Big Brother but through which Big Brother could also watch every citizen in any private or public space. This vision seems to be coming true: The Apple corporation owns a patent on a technology in which the whole monitor becomes a camera, be it that of your computer, navigation system or smart phone. Who will know now who is looking on? And who is grabbing at your picture data? – Horror!

With the iPhone we are – even now – incapable of keeping control over our data emissions. The funny and practical applets often use extra subroutines that collect data and pass it on to “Third Party Trackers“. One such subroutine from a firm, aptly named “Pinch Media“, collects, i.e. nicks, filches, or just pinches data like the iPhone's hardware ID, model and operating system version, whether the iPhone in question has been cracked or “jailbreaked“, when and for how long one uses a given program, in certain cases even position data and birth dates one has punched into Facebook. Again: Horror of horrors! My telephone, my enemy?

The word “trend“ has its roots in Middle High German, where it means “to rotate“ or “roll down“. – Nix down! We don't want to go down.

Within the time span of one single generation the world almost without transition has been thrown, not to say slingshot from the pre-computer era into the digital age. This opens possibilities that couldn't even be dreamed of before. But it also confronts our society with a number of unforeseen challenges. The upheaval of every aspect of our societal, social and cultural lives through the digital revolution goes way deeper than most people realise. There is no way back. But we do have the freedom to make this new, digitally interlinked world worth living in.

In the 1990s there were hardly any rules for the increasingly "netted" digital world. Everything that worked technologically was allowed. Nobody thought much about data protection and privacy, about long-term developments or sustainable data management. Only very recently, through corporate and political data scandals that made the news, do we get to feel the tip of the data iceberg that has grown silently but rapidly under our very feet. Words like cloud computing, data mining and server farms are hardly known to the public, although they describe ideas that should set us all thinking about our everyday actions. We are at the beginning of an era in which there is a danger that everybody will be irrevocably reduced to a set of data.

Our society needs to rethink. We need an “etiquette“ for the handling of data, or rather: of the information about us. We need laws that keep pace with technical developments. And we need the means and laws to prosecute and punish data crimes as appropriate. Not every digital automation that is possible should also be implemented. That could even save jobs or create new ones as a side effect.

Data crimes are no trivial offence, but many would like us to believe that they are just that. As long as we, the people affected, don't attribute more worth to our own data, nothing is going to change. As long as we don't obtain a better understanding of the technological processes, and the social processes that go along with them, we're easy game for those who will misuse and manipulate our data.

Yet, there is still hope. You are here. We are here. The last word hasn't been spoken. And yes, we do have something to hide and to protect, namely our private sphere, that precious fence around our inner garden.

______

¹ Kindly once translated by Art Spiegelman, as reported by Harry Rowohlt. Original: Ist der Ruf erst ruiniert, lebt sich’s völlig ungeniert!

² Translator’s note: Prohibition of coupling was incorporated into the German data protection law in a reform that came into force on 1 Sep 2009.

³ See this year’s Labour award.

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