Data do not expire

Martin Vietz is committed to digital civil rights, and deals with the effects of digitization in his work with the Chaos Computer Club.
Each individual user’s active participation regarding their privacy is very important in the digital world. Teachtoday spoke with Martin Vietz about the value of personal data and how important daily dealings with data protection are for children to grow up in safety.
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Mr. Vietz, a simple question first: Is your data valuable?
Certainly, as is the private data of all people. To determine how valuable data is today, one only has to look at the top 10 of the world’s most valuable companies. At four of the companies, data is an essential part of the business model. The private data that Google and Facebook collect even make up the majority of the companies’ assets.
What makes data so valuable?
Private data is mostly used by companies today to predict people’s behavior. For instance, to tailor advertising so that a person is more likely to make a purchase; in other words to manipulate the person in the most effective way possible. It’s also a means for banks and insurance companies to predict whether a person represents a business risk. Will this person tend to not pay back a credit or maybe get in a car accident, based on their previous behavior? For companies, these forecasting methods are quite lucrative.

The problematic element of this approach is that we, as those affected by it, get no information about what data and evaluation standards are used to make decisions. Whether the data or the evaluation standards are correct is not verifiable; one is at the mercy of the company making the analysis. The state is also trying to make similar predictions with their own surveillance tools and data retention programs. But based on the data we have about this, one must say: without much success. In general, predictions about the behavior of people in the future are always questionable; people can change.
What is important to you about data privacy? For example, when you use an app, what do you watch out for?
What permissions does the app request and why does it need them? A game does not need access to my location or my contacts, normally. Additionally, it’s always important to ask yourself why someone developed the app in the first place. If it’s not an open source app, there’s always a financial interest behind it. The question you’ve got to ask yourself is: Where does the money come from? And for what in return?
Where do you see risks in everyday use?
We are increasingly becoming transparent citizens and transparent customers – and no longer have control over our data. Data doesn’t just expire eventually, it accumulates. Besides that, it can be technically resold or even stolen. The consequences are not even clear to the experts. The small amount we do know about doesn’t add up to much good. For instance, it leads to the centralization of power. The more data one has, the more one can gain alleged knowledge from it.

That’s why data-driven companies will ultimately be very few but extremely large corporations. There just isn’t much room left for small and mid-sized companies. It also leads to a lot of pressure on the individual user to adapt. Whoever steps out of line won’t get to borrow money, won’t receive insurance or get a job, or will fall into the dragnet of the surveillance state.
What is your experience; are parents competent when it comes to data protection?
Usually not enough. Even among younger parents, who belong to the first wave of digital natives, there is a lack of basic understanding as to why data protection is so important and how to maintain one’s privacy.
That being the case, are parents the right people to be talking to children about data protection issues?
They should be, as well as for matters of general Internet use. For purposes of teaching children how to behave online, we should consider a comparison with learning about street traffic. Out on the street, the first thing we do is take children by the hand and explain traffic to them. Over time, we gradually allow them to navigate street traffic themselves. First led by the hand, then followed from behind and then by themselves.
What can or must parents learn or know in order to give their child that kind of support?
In contrast to street traffic, the Internet wasn’t introduced over a long period of time. Accordingly, a more dedicated preoccupation with the Internet is required, particularly with regard to the topics of data protection and media competency. Data protection has, as we discussed, unforeseeable consequences, and therefore one should always pay attention to data frugality. For each item of information that one puts online, one should consider: Would I share this information if a total stranger came up to me on the street and asked for it? This is especially true of Google’s search engine.

But media literacy is also quite important. Just because someone posted some information online, this does not make it true. One must also think about the psychological effects, such as confirmation bias and the echo-chamber effect, and actively work against them.
What role do educational institutions and schools play? The topic of digitization is ever more present there, but what about data protection?
These points must also be taken into account in schools. Here, it’s especially problematic that developments take place so quickly, and educational policy responds very slowly due to its rigid structure, and is sometimes also obstructed by lobbying efforts in opposition.
Do children and adolescents today have a different notion of privacy than adults?
With children, it’s doubtful that they are cognitively capable of making their own decisions about privacy. It’s not without reason that they are only considered legally competent at a certain age. That’s why collecting data on children should be illegal. With adolescents, all you have to do is ask if you can read the messages on their smartphone; it’s clear right away that privacy is very, very important to teenagers.
About the interviewer: Martin Vietz is a business information systems engineer and works as a freelance software developer. He is active with the association Entropia and the Chaos Computer Club. In his daily work, he deals in particular with technology impact assessment in relation to civil rights.

The interview was conducted by Martin Daßinnies.