A big data visual analysis decision platform at the international big data industry expo in Guiyang, China on May 26
Chen Yifan

BEIJING — The exhibition was called "Secret," and opened in the Wuhan Art Museum in April. And what was in the show? The personal information of the 346,000 citizens of the central Chinese city of Wuhan that the artist Deng Yufeng had bought on the black market.

Previously treated with a special chemical, certain parts of the printed information are blotted out. Though invisible under a fluorescent lamp, the data appears under ultraviolet light. Extremely detailed in nature, the information displayed is chilling.

"Tan*, female, 28 years old, phone number:*; home address: Wuchang, Heping Avenue, Rongqiao Mansion*, drives a red BMW, license plate number*, engine number* …

01/03/2018, 11:06 AM, bought 3 sets of baby commodities, 1 box of diapers and 3 boxes of milk powder on Taobao;

02/03/2018, 13:23 PM, bought 1 blouse and a pair of high-heels shoes on Taobao;

04/03/2018, 20:00 PM, bought the books - Infants Education and Parent-Children Relations on Taobao.

"Where is the ethical boundary between the data and each citizen?" asked Deng Yufeng at the press conference before the exhibit's opening. A week later, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was being questioned by the US Congress for the social network's infamous data leaks.

As of the first half of 2017, the data of 1.9 billion people in the world had been either leaked or stolen.

China has become a major player in data-based global enterprises. Some reason that Chinese companies are emerging rapidly in this digital economy war because of lax privacy protections in China.

"This is sickening!" This was the response of someone contacted by the event's volunteers to come and see the show, as their personal information was partly disclosed at the exhibition.

User data, as we have learned recently, plays a critical role in how many internet companies operate. They actively and freely collect client information whenever the clients use their web applications, and are asked to fill in some data.

"Users have been largely unaware of this process. Yet their data were becoming the web companies' most important assets," said Nadia, Director of the Nandou Personal Data Protection Research Center (NPDPR). Not only can this data be shared, sold and transferred, it may also be leaked during this process. As of the first half of 2017, the data of 1.9 billion people in the world had been either leaked or stolen.

The security threat comes not only from sellers, but also from data collecting platforms. "Nobody wants to become transparent on the web," said one of the exhibition volunteers. "All one's needs, as well as defects, are exposed by these apps. It's horrendous. But users are forced to hand over their information when they register."

Though there exists an Internet Security Law in China specifying that users own the rights of access, choice, removal and correction of their personal data, far few companies abide by the law.

"We may share your personal information and other data with a third party from time to time".

"We may sell or rent out your information to others …"

"Whatever happens, we are not to be held accountable."

These are the common words used in the privacy protection terms of the 1550 web apps that Jiang Lin and her colleagues from NPDPR have found by evaluating them starting last year.

And among the above-quoted terms and conditions, typed in light grey at the bottom of the user agreement for a consumer guide app called ‘Fruit Library", are the rights to pass on its users' contact information and the recorded content of their calls.

"According to our survey, very few firms conform to the Internet Security Law. Less than 10% of those sampled in our survey reached the required level of transparency, while more than 80% of the surveyed companies failed our evaluation," said Jiang Lin.

Privacy policy, nowhere to be found

Take China's several online video hosting and streaming platforms as examples. In order to obtain a verification code when users register, their phone numbers are obtained by these video services.

Upon first logging in to the mobile app of Youku, one of the country's major online video services, it says "We are permitted to read your phone number and telephone content in order to enforce account information security and recommend content better suited to you." After registering, access to the service's user agreement and privacy policy is nowhere to be found.

Again, "If you don't agree with our privacy policy, this software and services won't operate normally ... when you use our software and related services this means you have fully understood the whole content of our privacy policy," reads the privacy terms of Toutiao, one of China's biggest news and information platforms based on data mining and machine learning technology to recommend personalized content for individual users.

china_big_data_alibaba

Alibaba introducing a big data cloud computing platform at the 3rd World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, China on Nov. 16, 2016 — Photo: Xu Yu/Xinhua/ZUMA

Even though the functions such as ‘reading of contact data", ‘direct calls' and ‘recording" appeared on the Android mobile phone of Huawei, the multinational telecommunication equipment company, its users agreement does not inform users explicitly what it would be permitted to read, nor for what use.

As this newspaper found out, whether it's Alipay, the third-party online and mobile payment platform, Didi, the ride-sharing behemoth that acquired Uber China in 2016, Taobao, the e-commerce website, or amap.com, a mapping application, they all mention in their privacy terms that they may share users' information under certain circumstances without their consent. This includes academic research for the purpose of service quality or for authorized third party partners.

"Collection of personal data and processing should be subject to consent. So far no law stipulates that their personal information can be disclosed just because it has to do with academic research, legitimate news reports or credit evaluation without the users' consent," said Deng Xueping, an attorney for the Capital Equity Legal Group's Shanghai office, and a former senior prosecutor,.

As Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba group, said recently: "The coming 30 years is where the enormous opportunities lay. Data will be the core resource."

Scientific development takes precedence over vague moral concerns.

Zhou Kunxuan, CEO of 23 Mofang, an online gene-testing company, said at a recent product launch: "Our users soared from 30,000 to 160,000 within a year. We have the largest consumer-level genetic detection database in China so far." All this relies on using people's data.

While the boundary of data and its commercial uses expand, so do ethical issues. If the biological characteristics of a person make up an important part of personal data, will an insurance company still cover you if it can predict that you will soon be subject to serious illness?

Li Kaifu, a Taiwanese-American venture capitalist who launched Google China in Beijing, once said, "Generally speaking, in China, scientific development takes precedence over vague moral concerns."

Jiang Lin told the Economic Observer that almost none of the sampled companies comply with the ‘minimum necessity" principle to access clients' sensitive personal data. "A lot of enterprises collect as much data as possible because they believe that even if it may not be useful now, it could be one day."

The artist Deng Xueping says that at the end of the day, the plight of protecting a citizen's personal data relies solely on the moral consciousness of internet giants such as Alibaba and Tencent. "In the information age, we no longer have secrets. Big data can exploit our lifestyles, levels of consumption, favoring of trends, locations, political leanings and personalities," Deng said. "Our lives become the data of others. Our data becomes the choices of others. Our choices become the rights of others."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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