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Digitalization is good if privacy is by design

Interview: Zulfikar Abbany, HanoverMarch 18, 2016

No one wants to turn back the clocks of our technological development, says German Greens MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht. But privacy and data protection need to be built into the Internet of Things by design.

Cebit 2016 Jan Albrecht Hannover German Greens MEP
Image: DW/Z.Abbany

DW: We talk a lot about encryption as a means of ensuring online data protection. But you say it's not the only solution. Why?

Jan Philipp Albrecht: When we talk about IT security, encryption can be just one corner stone. It still needs to be one of the building blocks of security, because there are so many unencrypted data flows out there which can be comprised quite easily. But we also need better security by design, and privacy by design. So consumer-friendly, privacy-friendly and data protection-friendly products need to be built, and that doesn't happen just by accident, it also needs to be regulated.

Give us some examples. Where do these issues arise?

I'm talking about the Internet of Things: You have the fridge, for example, being connected to the Internet, sending data back and forth. Or you have a connected car, or perhaps your Google Glass - when it comes out - processing very sensitive data. There needs to be security and privacy infrastructure and checks involved in the design of these products. To achieve that we need regulators to do the work beforehand.

Public vs Private

You say it's very hard these days to distinguish between public and private actors. Do you mean we can't trust governments and we can't trust companies either?

The main problem is that the public sector works with systems built by private companies. It's no longer that police officers gather information on their own but they are using data collected by companies on phones. Therefore we can't distinguish anymore between the systems which are created by private companies and the public interests which may be compromised by those systems.

Are there any ways around that, though, other than sitting in the dark in a hovel, or not leaving home? Do we have to engage with this future or is there a way around it?

No, I think there's no way of getting around the development of digitalization. We don't want that. We want to be out there. We want to take part in society. We want to be consumers. But there is the expectation that we enjoy basic security, that regulators create a safe environment, and that is what we need to do.

Can't stop the clocks

There is a lot of fear about the Internet of Things or artificial intelligence - especially now as the computer program AlphaGo has beaten Go world champion Lee Se-dol. But the fear makes it sound as though things are out of our control. At the moment, though, we're still driving the development. So if we don't like it, why don't we just stop it?

I really think it's only the start of these debates. We need to get really deep into it and discuss the ethical and moral surroundings of our technological developments. Do we really want to give away sovereignty of our lives to machines, or do we put in checks and balances to still have decisions made by humans - or even self-determination by each and every consumer? That's what we need to talk about.

But I get the feeling we can't turn back the clocks on the advance of technology…

Nobody wants to turn back the clocks. I really think we all see the positive sides and the benefits of digitalization and even automatization. But we need to talk about basic safeguards. We need to talk about where there are boundaries to safeguard non-discrimination, to safeguard privacy, to safeguard us from crime and from other developments which may be dangerous for us.

Jan Philipp Albrecht is a German Greens MEP who specializes in digital civil rights, data protection and privacy. He spoke to DW at the 2016 CeBIT technology fair in Hanover.