Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Zeitgeist Datenschutz for English Speakers

Kindergarten, Fahrverg√ľngen, Doppelg√§nger, Zeitgeist.
These are some of the terms that made it from the German language into English. I'd like to tell you about another one which is ever-present in today's German, more relevant than ever and has no direct translation into English.

Datenschutz. The dictionary says it's "data privacy" but from my understanding this does not really cut it. Like Angst which is not straight fear but is more specific, Datenschutz is the subject of "data privacy" but it also includes an underlying idea:

Datenschutz (noun).
Literally it means "data protection".
Initially it was also defined (by law in 1970) as such.  The protection of data from manipulation, loss or theft.  Over time that has changed (I won't go into detail about this process) but now it's something rather different.
Not the data is protected but the individuals which are represented by that data.  Which brings us close to "data privacy".

Wikipedia (DE) defines Datenschutz as:
The protection from abusive information processing, protection of the right to informational self-determination. Protection of personality rights in the context of information processing or protection of privacy. Datenschutz stands for the idea that every human can decide for themselves to whom he/she makes what personal information available.

Although it is not stated in Germany's constitution, the constitutional court elevated a derived "right to informational self determination" to a fundamental right.

Datenschutz - as federal law - asserted 1986 that any processing of personal information is illegal unless permitted by law.  The same law also calls for Datensparsamkeit (another good one) which literally means "data frugality" which goes hand in hand with Datenvermeidung (data avoidance).

Of course there are lot of exceptions and loopholes (hooray for bonus cards!) but the important bit seems to be that we had a public discussion over several years in Germany on Datenschutz in the context of a general census (which finally happened in 1987) and since this time the idea that "my data is my property" is prevalent.

Based on this discussion there is a deep distrust on anybody who is collecting data: Once data has been obtained, people (who have for example a large commercial incentive) will find creative and unexpected ways to use or combine it in interesting and abusive ways.  This is difficult to fix once it happened and more difficult to prevent by regulation - unless you do not obtain the data in the first place.

Datenschutz is opinionated. It has this underlying assumption: We own and control our data. And unless you seek permission it's not ok to use it as you please.

But maybe I got "data privacy" wrong, if this is the case please enlighten me.

@ingomar