Protecting privacy was on the minds of almost all the dignitaries assembled in Hanover, Germany, on Sunday night to open this year's Cebit trade show, the theme of which is "datability," or big data with responsibility.
Referring to the accelerating accumulation of digital data, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "This digital world has to be given a legal framework, an underlying order. We're only at the beginning of that. National laws alone will not suffice."
Restricting the accumulation of data may no longer be the right approach, however, warned Dieter Kempf, president of the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom). "We have to wonder whether the approach to data protection that strives to limit collection of personal data can apply in the digital world," he said. "Categorical nay-saying may be popular but it doesn't do justice to the digital approach."
Those who want to use our personal data must protect it, Kempf said, suggesting we use more IT to help solve the privacy problem that IT has created. "With the aid of anonymization, pseudonymization, privacy by design, organizational measures and new technologies such as homomorphic encryption it will be possible to boost data protection to exceptionally high levels," he said.
Stephan Weil, Minister-President for the German State of Lower Saxony in which Hanover lies, also evoked the "ethical and moral dimensions of data privacy and data protection." In the European Union, he said, "We soon need to have standard rules so that everywhere we have a high level of data privacy. In free trade talks with the U.S., our European standards have to be the benchmark."
Even Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen, expressed concern that today's computerized, connected cars could become a threat to their drivers' data privacy. "We protect our customers against all sorts of risks and dangers on the road — losing control and aquaplaning, nodding off at the wheel, getting stuck in traffic jams. We need to be equally responsible about protecting our customers against the misuse of their personal data," he said. However, he rejected the notions of the "nanny state and Big Brother."
To avoid intrusive monitoring of drivers — and intrusive government regulation — he called on auto manufacturers to come up with common standards on data privacy: "What is needed here is a form of self-regulation by the car industry. Volkswagen, certainly, stands ready to sign up to such an arrangement."
Only U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron seemed determined not to mention the war on privacy.
With his first remarks, he gave an impression of someone remote from the concerns of typical Europeans today. The ceremony had opened with a dialog between a young actor and a robot, RoboThespian, followed a little later with a performance by violinist Nicky Benedetti, prompting him to observe, apparently without irony, "What can I say? Violins, music, a robot thespian: This for me is a typical Sunday evening."
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