DebateYou can't sell yourself into slavery

You can’t sell yourself into slavery

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Reading time: 3:45 | But this is precisely what we’re doing, and it’s illegal.

For some time now, my brother Albrecht and I have been coming up with the following thesis: all data must be deleted that has been collected from us humans so far, and all machine learning and AI software applications must be based on new algorithms without our data; otherwise, our democracy is in grave danger.

Photography: Olga Kriger

If I go to a church and take my phone with me, specific programs will detect my whereabouts and forward it to Big Data. The next day, when I go in for an MRI scan, Big Data will know from the doctor’s phone because I have been in her vicinity for a typical examination time.

Photography: Romaset, Getty Images

With movement profiles like these, Big Data learns the most amazing things about me without my consent. That includes the answering of the question of which denomination I probably belong to and knows because before I went to the hospital, I looked up the keyword back pain on the Internet, that I almost certainly had a slipped disc.

I became personally sensitive to the subject when I visited Glasgow last year. We sat in a restaurant and had dinner. Like we all, our young crew member had his phone with him and also had Instagram open. A short part of our conversation was about film lenses and the optics manufacturer Zeiss. Less than 15 minutes later an advertisement by Zeiss on the subject of riflescopes opened in his Instagram app with a loud ping. We must have been eavesdropped by Instagram, as apparently, also other Instagram users have been, which suggest court cases on similar occasions.

That audacity of Orwellian dimension is symptomatic of one of the biggest problems of our time: the use of our data and the question of who owns it.

While the former is difficult to clarify because it is unclear to what extent who does what with my data, in the end, the latter is simple: my data belongs to me. They belong to me as I belong to myself because they are part of my existence, similar to the inevitable CO2 fingerprint. Only my death can stop the production of my data. And even then, the chances are high that I, in some form, persist to exist digitally.

Photography: Bunyos, Getty Images

The question arises whether I can sell or cede my data if my data is a part of myself. The German constitution has a clear opinion about the inalienability of me. It says in article 1, paragraph 2: The German people are therefore committed to inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every human community, peace and justice in the world.

One of the central human rights is freedom, and that is why I cannot, for example, sell my liberty for money and go into slavery. If my data is an essential part of my modern humanity, the question arises whether I am allowed to sell it at all. But if like the hair on my head, my data were an insignificant part of me that grows back and can be sold with little damage and soft consequences, then our experience in Glasgow would be a foreseeable result of my employee’s consent to Instagram allowing its machine to redirect his data. One could claim, your fault – you didn’t have to cut your hair and sell it.

Picture: Pawel Gaul, Getty Images

But: neither I did agree with that, nor did our other team colleague at the table. Because we’ve all been at this place together for a longer time, Big Data has learned that I’m interested in Zeiss film lenses, although I never agreed to let them know that. But it won’t stay that way because we’ve talked about many other things, things that are private and that don’t concern anyone, for example, whether my back has a severe problem.

But old-fashioned eavesdropping is not what is needed to override the Hippocratic oath, when Big Data, even without a microphone and voice recognition, learns all the important things about me without my consent.

Photography: Lawrence Long, Getty Images

Article 12 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

It does not take much imagination to realise that Article 12 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights is not compliant with today’s digital world. Article 12 is broken billions of times a second. These breaches are encroachments on our freedom because they give others insights into our lives that they would never allow us to have on their lives or organisations. With Big Data, with Facebook, Amazon, Google and many others, an authoritarian state within the state has already been created, which knows more about us than our doctor, lawyer, siblings, parents and children, and even than we. And Big Data makes enormous money, more than any other economic sector with the highest growth rates of all. Where money is earned, power accumulates. At the end of the development, the question will come up: democracy or oligarchy. In Russia and China, this question has long been decided.