Future

Registered Humans And The Risks Of Forced Digitalization

The state, as well as companies, want to know as much as possible about citizens. The battle against the unstoppable digitalization of our world seems hopeless. Germany is particularly sensitive to the downsides.

Who's watching?
Who's watching?
Jannis Brühl

MUNICH â€" Search engines love people like Ulrich Greveler. "My name is a primary index," the German informatics professor says. The notion "primary index" comes from database query language, and Greveler explains that his name is like a client number, clearly identifiable. If you Google him, you'll find information explicitly concerning Greveler, from his success stories to insults published by his enemies.

People with more common names create a digital "blurring," meaning that it becomes more difficult to find information about them on the Internet. Any Michael Müller in Germany (or John Smith in Britain) would know what we're talking about.

But for Greveler, there's no escaping, which makes this expert in the field ever more aware of the pros and cons of what's been called "forced digitalization."

Do companies and the state leave us no other option when it comes to being connected to digital collection systems? It's a question that finds resonance in Germany, a country where the preservation of data privacy is and remains important for many. For 10 years now, the discussion of electronic health insurance cards and the digitalization of an entire country in general has been a hot topic.

It all started with a small box with a digital display: the smart meter, which allows for remote reporting and two-way communication between electricity meters and the central system. According to the German government, these connected electric meters will become compulsory over the next two decades, first for key industrial accounts, and later in high-consumer households.

They would replace leaded polyphaser meters, glamorously called "Ferrari-meters," which unglamorously require being read in person and don't allow for a more nuanced form of electricity consumption (and waste reduction) like smart meters do.

Big brother

The more efficient smart meters represent good news for both bank accounts and the environment, but they are also able to reveal much more about the way people live. Greveler, who has studied the topic extensively, says the meter's data measures not just energy consumption but specifics such as when people get up in the morning and whether they use the bathroom at night. There is even the possibility for "fine-granular" data collection, meaning in one-second intervals, in which experts could deduce in which room a resident is standing, what movie he's watching and the display brightness of his television set. Such data from a whole city could then be merged for extrapolation at the energy supplier's.

But Greveler assures that this data is well secured. He compliments draft legislation regarding the smart meter. "The technical guidelines concerning the data transfer are very complete," he says. "You can't possibly make them any more secure."

Still, the German Federation of Consumer Protection (VZBZ) opposes the "intelligent" measuring tool, introducing the term "forced digitalization" in the process. Its position is that annual savings aren't significant enough for the domestic customer, especially considering the fact that consumers would have to pay for the new tool.

And the VZBV's Florian Glatzner also believes the smart meter represents a much bigger problem. "In Germany, it's not possible to escape digitalization," he says. Furthermore, only a fraction of domestic customers are concerned about energy usage because most of them aren't hitting the limit of the 6,000 kilowatt hours per year.

Some may wonder if what will follow is a serious battle over digitalization, but it seems the battle is already lost. Glatzner says something called "E-Call" may become mandatory starting in 2018. It is an emergency call system â€" automatically reporting accidents â€" to be fitted on vehicles, in addition to the already intense efforts of car manufacturers to build connected vehicles.

A new smart meter in a rusted box â€" Photo: Skatebiker

The same legislation establishing E-Call would force mobile companies to register the names and birth dates of those who purchase pre-paid cell phone cards. All of this technology and the way it identifies consumers has led many consumer protection agencies to begin recommending digital anonymization services.

Analog luxury

Greveler doesn't believe it's possible to stop the technical revolution. He says the last resort is for citizens to manipulate their own identities. "I do support the basic right of a person to change her or his name in order to avoid being associated with digital traces from the past," he says. In other words, it's not the digital world that must adapt to humans, but the other way around.

Has analog been lost forever? Andre Wilkens doesn't think so. The political scientist has written a book called Analog is the New Organic, which argues that niche versions of analog can survive. The emblem of his idea is a hip Berlin boutique that sells movies on VHS cassettes that are recommended by human sales people instead of algorithms.

But Wilkens learned in the course of his research that humanity can't escape digitalization entirely. Analog will become a luxury that only the avant-garde will be able to afford. "Only the cool skat will play with real cards," as he puts it.

No wonder why Silicon Valley elite send their offspring to Waldorf schools.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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