02.10.2019

ADIEU PRIVACY?

Data protection is on everyone's lips and yet our data can still end up in the wrong hands. Why is that and what can we do about it? Stefan Strauß, social and computer scientist at the Academy, addresses these questions in his new book.

© Unsplash/Kon Karampelas

"There is a lot at stake", warns Stefan Strauß. In his newly published book "Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society", the scientist from the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) deals with an "endangered species". "Currently, I see a clear trend towards an ever-increasing threat to privacy", he says. In his book, Strauss considers this socio-technical problem from a systemic perspective. He identifies a central risk that threatens our privacy and then he develops a framework for privacy impact assessment that can help protect it.

Threats to privacy always begin with the processing of data that allows conclusions about the identity of a person.

Our privacy seems to be threatened by digitization in many ways. You identify a central problem – what is this "digital disease", as you call it?

Stefan Strauß: I see uncontrolled socio-technical identifiability as the primary risk. Threats to privacy always begin with the processing of data that allows conclusions about the identity of a person. This applies universally and the digital transformation of society exacerbates this. Each use of a technology generates further data. This increases our identity shadows and, as a result, the risks to privacy.

What makes an erosion of privacy so dangerous?

Strauß: There is a lot at stake if we unthinkingly give up privacy. If privacy is lost, sooner or later democracy will be lost too. The data scandal surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, for example, is no small matter. This is not an isolated case, but rather a symptom. It is very short-sighted to believe that society would be more open and freer without privacy. With increasing digitization, ever stronger power monopolies are being created. These power monopolies are ultimately information monopolies that are increasingly becoming monopolies over digital identities.

So, what do you suggest?

Strauß: In my view, the discussion about privacy and data protection needs more systems thinking. This brings an analytical added value to better understand privacy and identity information as well as their digitization. Based on that, I have developed in my book a new framework for Privacy Impact Assessment, which systematically focuses on identifiability. This framework helps to better analyze identity information and identification processes and to enhance protection of privacy. It's not so much about the legal but rather about the ethical aspects: just because something is not illegal, it does not mean it is ethically okay.

Many privacy settings, especially on social media, are essentially useless, because in the background a lot of data can be linked for extremely non-transparent purposes.

In your book you also criticize the "privatization of privacy". What do you mean by that?

Strauß: By that I mean the trend that shifts the responsibility more and more towards the individual. In other words: privacy is important, but if you want it, dear user, then deal with it yourself. Here are your privacy settings and first you have to agree to share data comprehensively. It just does not work that way. Many of these privacy settings, especially on social media, are essentially useless, because in the background a lot of data can be linked for extremely non-transparent purposes. These are problems that we have to tackle. This requires more responsibility from business and politics and more effective safeguards at the technological level. At the moment, you can be identified virtually anytime you use digital technology without effective protection.

What do you hope to achieve with your book?

Strauß: First and foremost, I want to contribute to broadening the knowledge of what privacy means in digitalization. So far, we simply do not have sufficient understanding of how digitalization is changing the processing of information flow. We need sound basic knowledge, so that, in the long term, privacy can be better positioned as a commodity to be protected. And not only as a private commodity and individual right, but above all as a public commodity. Improving this basic understanding and thus bringing the level of protection back to a meaningful level is a key challenge for society.

 

AT A GLANCE

Stefan Strauß holds a doctorate in business information technology and is a researcher at the Institute of Technology Assessment of the OeAW. His new book "Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society" was published by Routledge in 2019.