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.
MUNICH — 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.
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 — automatically reporting accidents — to be fitted on vehicles, in addition to the already intense efforts of car manufacturers to build connected vehicles.
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A new smart meter in a rusted box — 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.
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.