© KURIER/ Gilbert Novy


Data protection: “We have lost the core of our fundamental rights.”

Social media like Facebook and Twitter have become a fixed part of everyday life, and the search engine Google is the first thing people turn to when they want to know something. Social media and other modern conveniences make many thing faster and easier for people; you can have your friends with you at all times and wherever you go. But what about the flip side of the coin: data protection and the like? And what effects are the giant spying scandal that was uncovered by whistleblower Edward Snowden having? Experts at the University of Vienna discussed this on Wednesday evening as part of a talk series being organized by KURIER and other partners. “It goes without saying that such issues also affect the university. We want to contribute to the public discussion,” said Heinz W. Engl, Rector of the University of Vienna.

The currently valid data protection regulations are from 1995, and are seriously outdated. The EU is currently working on new regulations that take the technical developments of recent years into account. But this is proving difficult due to massive lobbying by major US corporations. “The current data protection regulations are unfortunately based on the assumption that data is stored at a central location,” said Daniel Ennöckl, professor at the Institute for Constitutional and Administrative Law. But we need a global approach to data protection, and rules for Europe that apply equally to everyone, Ennöckl said.

“No one knows what Facebook does with the information”

It is no secret that companies like Facebook collect reams of information about users. But no one really knows what Facebook does with the data. “Not even Facebook knows. It simply collects as much as possible,” said Max Schrems, Facebook critic and leader of the initiative europe-vs-facebook.

Schrems stressed that a lot of what US companies like Facebook do is even illegal under current law. But no one is doing anything against it. “Fundamental rights are not enforced in Europe,” Schrems criticized. In Ireland, where Facebook, Google, and many other companies are headquartered, no one is interested in taking action at all. The country profits handsomely from the fact that IT companies set up shop there because of the tax benefits. Due to this, the initiative europe-vs-facebook has also taken legal action against the Irish data protection authority.

Busting myths

Katharine Sarikakis examines social media, privacy, and data protection issues at a scientific level. She feels that social networks have changed the meaning of the concept “private,” and that users no longer have the ability to control their “public.” Aside from that, it is not true that young people today do not value their privacy. “Studies have shown that this is not true, and that young people want to maintain control over their information,” the scientist said. But it is not just about information, but also about democracy and human dignity. “Every person is allowed to dream as they will,” Sarikakis said. “Anonymity and unpredictability are crucial for the freedom of every citizen.”

Katharine Sarikakis:

Facebook is testing the limits of tolerance and acceptance – Photo: Gilbert Novy, Kurier Social media is shifting borders. “Facebook is testing the limits of tolerance and acceptance, for example when guidelines are changed again.” It then waits to see how the users react, taking something back – only to reintroduce it in a more aggressive form under a different guise. It is also not true that the users are schizophrenic because they use the platforms anyway. “They decide very carefully,” Sarikakis said.

There are different reasons for using the services despite knowing how much data is collected and the risk of surveillance. “On the one hand, we do not directly feel the effects of this in our everyday lives. At the same time, we have gotten used to many things, or sometimes do not entirely understand what the real issue is,” Sarikakis said. People also have a fundamental need to establish and maintain networks, and that is being exploited, she added.

Tip of the iceberg

Most speakers were in agreement that Facebook, Google, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg. If you look behind the scenes, cloud computing and big data reveal the true scope of the matter, said Gerald Quirchmayr from the research group Multimedia Information Systems. “Every company today is trying to get as much of this ‘oil of the 21st century’ as possible.” Quirchmayr urged everyone to not upload unencrypted data to services like Google Drive or Dropbox, and to not send unencrypted e-mails. If you do, you can just as well put up posters with your personal information around the city, he asserted.

“The NSA is the world’s largest employer of mathematicians”

Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations have lent a new dimension to the issue of data protection. It shows the extent of surveillance measures, which even go beyond what was already assumed. “We have lost the core of our fundamental rights. What the USA is doing has reached an entirely new level,” Ennöckl said. No one is safe from spying anymore. This assertion has nothing to do with anti-Americanism, and there is of course espionage in Europe, but the scope of what the NSA and PRISM are doing is magnitudes greater, he said. Europe has to step up, the reactions of politicians have not been vehement enough yet, he added. One possibility would be to suspend negotiations on free trade agreements, or to terminate existing agreements like Safe Harbor, Ennöckl feels.

Rector Engl is dismayed to see how technological loopholes were intentionally created over many years to facilitate surveillance measures. “The NSA is the world’s largest employer of mathematicians,” Engl said. Companies were bribed to write software in ways that would allow penetration.

Focus on European services

The NSA scandal makes it all the more important to strengthen European companies, to establish an IT industry that can be more independent of the USA. “The door is still open,” Quirchmayr said, adding that Europe can still keep up in terms of software, and that it is even a leader in some areas. But Engl added that the train has left the station in terms of hardware, in his opinion.

And there are of course major problems with data protection here at home. For example, Ennöckl criticized that violations are rarely punished. One reason for this, he said, is that the Austrian data protection commission is seriously understaffed. “We have the necessary laws, but no sanctions are applied,” Ennöckl deplored. And the duality of public and private information is ignored in Austria. “Officials never want to make anything transparent. Anytime someone wants information, their request is refused under the premise of data protection,” the legal expert criticized. “Public information must be public, and private information private.”