Many people are convinced that they have nothing to hide. On closer inspection, this unfortunately turns out to be a premature conclusion. I will try to explain this complex problem in an understandable way.

-> Deutsche Version des Artikels

To divulge data only means more ads?

Today, if someone agrees to the processing of his data, the data is used in addition to the actual purpose, such as the processing of an order, usually also for advertising. The usual conclusion is that people who divulge a lot of data about themselves simply receive more advertising. Many people find this unproblematic because they can click away or block advertising and thus control the influence of advertising on their buying behaviour. So for many, transmitting data is unproblematic. I think this view is too short-sighted.

Flood of advertisements
Advertising flood (from commons.wikipedia.com)

Why it’s about more than advertising

Put simply, I am convinced that not only our consumer behaviour, but also our opinion is increasingly influenced by advertising, without us being aware of it.

Thesis 1: People can no longer sufficiently control the amount of incoming advertising.

Advertising, which includes not only the promotion of products, but also of opinions, for example from political parties or companies, is becoming increasingly subtle. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between advertised and unadvertised content.

This allows advertising to be purposefully placed with the help of the wealth of data that companies have on many people. Thus, the target group increasingly feels addressed by advertising instead of perceiving it as annoying. In consequence, it is not uncommon for advertised expressions of opinions to be adopted into one’s own opinion without reflection. This process of deliberately influencing political opinions is generally referred to as propaganda and is being used increasingly successfully today, e.g. in campaigns for political elections. In summary, the amount of data about people in the hands of companies or politicians correlates with the efficiency and effectiveness of their propaganda. This results in my 2nd thesis:

Thesis 2: Today, with increasing knowledge (through data about people), opinion manipulation is more effective and efficient than ever before.

In history, opinion manipulation has always been an important task for those who wanted to exercise political power: The Greeks, the Romans, the kings and emperors, right up to the governments of today. One of the largest systems of its kind in the last century was developed by the Ministry of State Security (so-called “Stasi”) of the GDR in eastern Germany. The system of the Stasi was, however, significantly smaller than the current systems, e.g. of today’s secret services. The machine learning algorithms used today produce usable knowledge from the data several orders of magnitude faster than it was possible in the last century.

China as an example: People who brave the manipulation are put at a disadvantage

Using China as an example, I would like to illustrate the development stage of propaganda, i.e. the condition in which citizens who brave the manipulation and thus do not always act in conformity with the political party (the “one” party) are disadvantaged. The sources for the following information on China can be found at the end of this article.

In summary, the Chinese government plans to evaluate all citizens with a score from 2020, the so-called “citizen score”. Until then there are pilot projects to prepare the roll-out for the whole country. One pilot takes place in Rongcheng. There at the market place the citizens with the best score will be publicly displayed – including a photo and some of the activities that gave them the good score. In the beginning every citizen gets a score of 1000. Points are deducted for traffic sins or critical statements against the government. Plus points are awarded, for example, for good performance at work, voluntary commitment or party-compliant statements.

For the technical implementation, the database of many companies is gathered and evaluated, above all by messengers (above all WeChat, counterpart to Whatsapp) and online shops (above all Alibaba, counterpart to Amazon). Other large amounts of data come from cameras. Comprehensive camera networks are currently being set up in Chinese cities.

Öffentlicher Aushang in Rongcheng
Public display in Rongcheng (from foreignpolicy.com)

What effect does the Citizen Score have?

Citizens with low scores are disadvantaged: e.g. their costs of everyday life increase, such as additional costs of the rented apartment, career opportunities are restricted, or the freedom to travel is restricted. One affected person reports:

“When I wanted to buy a plane ticket, I didn’t get one. As a result, I found out that I could no longer buy any tickets at all”

Source, in german.

A citizen from Rongcheng says:

“Whatever we do, we think of our credit points.”

I find the automation of this system technically highly interesting but from a political point of view highly critical. When the system is applied to 1.4 billion Chinese in 18 months from now, a multitude of algorithms from the field of machine learning is applied, especially from the so-called “deep learning” area. As mentioned in this blog post, these algorithms have the weakness that they are difficult to control and not yet fully understood. In summary, the fate of people in China will soon be determined by algorithms that we have not yet fully penetrated.

Interim conclusion

In summary, history repeats itself in China. Moreover, what George Orwell described in his book “1984” becomes even more real than it already is.

However, the transition to the next stage of the digital surveillance state in China is taking place much faster than has been possible so far – thanks to modern technologies from the field of artificial intelligence, namely machine learning algorithms. This “extension” of 1984 by modern technologies, applied by a few large IT companies, is beautifully described by Dave Eggers in his bestselling novel “The Circle”. One might think that China makes every word in this book a reality. By the way, China is of course not the only country you would call a surveillance state.

For me, the result of the deliberations so far is as follows:

The influence of companies or institutions correlates with the amount of data they have on individuals. Large amounts of data make it possible to understand individuals so well that they become controllable. Thus, the freedom of individuals can be restricted when they release much of their data.

To me, honestly, it took many years to come to this conclusion. I analyzed business models of data driven companies, looked at encryption ciphers of apps, read the documents uncovered by Edward Snowden and followed the thoughts of the free software movement, induced by Richard Stallman. I still have the feeling that I understood only the tip of the iceberg, because all in all it’s a very complex problem. Exactly that is leveraged by the few companies pushing surveillance: Not many people understand the correlations, many are not aware and say “I have nothing to hide” and spread their data. To me, there is enough evidence, so I’ll feel responsible to spread the word, but never my data.

Finally, I recommend the popular audio book “Qualityland” by Mark Uwe Kling. It tells the story of a person who lives in a digitized state and increasingly understands the problems induced by surveillance. For me it is the most brilliant story of a dystopia, because it’s humorously wrapped by  without losing the seriousness of the basic message.

Are there any consequences for us in Europe, far away from China?

In any case, I think it will be a long time before we have a similar system in place. This year’s ratification of the general data protection regulation (GDPR) was an important step in giving us more time until the Chinese dystopia might find its way into our system. Until then, the techniques of unconscious opinion manipulation will be used.

But I won’t be manipulated!

Many people are convinced that they can never be manipulated. After my past remarks this should have become clear: This conviction is only logical, because the manipulation often takes place in the unconscious. Those of my readers who nevertheless believe that they are an exception should look, for example, into the book “Predictably Irrational“. Most probably this opinion will have changed after reading.

What can I do?

My concept of “sustainable IT” is not only about awareness of material and energetic resources when using IT (german blog post about our resource-intensive lifestyle), but also about the long-term impact of IT use. According to my comments in this article, every reader should be aware that data plays a very special role here.

I therefore advise my customers on what they can do themselves to reveal as little data about themselves as possible and thus no longer support opinion manipulation. The result is called data sovereignty, i.e. the sovereignty or control of the user over his or her own data. Simply put, through the use of IT systems that do not send any data to their manufacturers, the individual person remains in control of the data. Of these (mostly open source) systems, there are sufficient good solutions today for almost all application areas.

Every step counts – start small, but today!

It is up to each person to become a master of their own data and IT again. Every small step in the right direction counts. I have described some of them here in the Bitleaf blog. These include, for example, privacy-friendly search engines, your own file storage in the cloud and privacy-friendly operating systems such as Linux.

Attention: Open source solutions like Ubuntu, which is based on Linux, do not automatically conform to data protection regulations. Instead it often requires some cleaning after installation. Also not all open source solutionsa are data protection friendly. The list of recommended solutions changes frequently. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me, I follow the current developments as much as I can.

Sources for information about the Citizen Score in China:

Edit this post on GitHub.

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