We should not regard aging as a fact of life. Aubrey de Grey

“The Internet is like Elvis Presley’s hips”

Harper Reed helped Barack Obama get re-elected, is a staunch defender of Internet freedom and believes that the whole discussion about data protection is completely overblown. He talked to Max Tholl about why we sell our privacy, the good intentions of the NSA and how Europe is hurting itself by overprotecting data.

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The European: Mr. Reed, you analyzed and targeted potential voters for the Obama re-election campaign based on their behavioral patterns on the net. Are we humans that easy to categorize?
Reed: The easy answer is no. Human nature is far too complex to reduce it to a simple algorithm. You need to look at the bigger picture here. In the U.S., elections are not about persuasion; they’re about voter turnout. My task wasn’t to convince people to vote for Obama, I only reminded them that they should vote.

The European: How much did your personal preference come into play in this task?
Reed: It did, no question. I couldn’t have done the same thing for Mitt Romney because I didn’t support his views. But I wasn’t Obama’s flag-waver. After all, getting out the vote will not secure you the vote.

The European: The candidate is still the most important element of the election campaign.
Reed: Absolutely! Let me give you an example: In 2008, Bill Richardson, then the Democratic Governor of New Mexico, was one of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidential election. He used the same software to target potential voters that Obama used but was nowhere near him in the end. It shows that software and algorithms can’t win you elections. Nobody should win an election because he or she can afford the best software. You need to be a good candidate. The rest are just nice add-ons.

The European: But combined with the right people, these add-ons are very powerful political tools.
Reed: They are, of course, instruments of power. But you need to keep in mind that they are also instruments of democracy and open access. These programs foster democracy by reminding people how important it is to cast their vote. They also grant people access to the political sphere by enabling interaction between citizens and their representatives. Whether the Internet is an instrument of power or an instrument of liberation depends on the intentions of the people controlling and using it.

The European: Very often the intentions are good but there is still widespread skepticism. Many see micro-targeting, like you used for the Obama campaign, as an invasion of privacy.
Reed: Think about a plane crash.

The European: A plane crash?
Reed: We’ve got all these tools and instruments around us and there’s always the possibility that something horrible will happen. We are constantly fighting off potential dangers. Micro targeting could be used for bad – absolutely – but it can also be used for good. If we really want to be that cautious, we should also constantly be on the lookout for cars that might run us over or we shouldn’t board a plane because it could crash. We should probably get rid of knives too because they are used to stab people.

The European: We should improve our risk assessment?
Reed: Right, especially Europeans. Whenever I talk to Europeans or travel to Europe, I notice this fear that data and targeting can only be used for bad purposes, when in reality, it is used for good things all the time.

The European: Why do you think that Europeans are so cautious and frightful when it comes to personal data?
Reed: There is a cultural and historical relevance that we in the US simply don’t have. Europe has a long history of state oppression and surveillance, especially Germany. So whenever personal freedom is at play, Europeans only focus on the potential dangers. The truth is: nobody knows how the future of big data is going to play out. There is no historical precedent.

The Europe: Don’t you think that this European mindset also results from the fact that we completely rely on American technologies and software that have very different privacy settings?
Reed: Nobody forces Europeans to use American software. Nobody forces you to use Facebook or Google. You’re invited to, but you don’t need to.

The European: The alternatives are quite limited…
Reed: Because European politicians hinder the development of new technologies and software. There are a lot of German start-ups migrating to other countries because the technologies they would need to build something new are forbidden according to the German data protection law. I don’t want to argue that these laws are obsolete or unimportant – they are not – but Germany should be careful not to block innovation.

The European: The problem with data is that it entails a trade-off between innovation on the one hand and privacy on the other. It’s efficient if Amazon tells you which books to buy but it clearly invades part of your privacy.
Reed: I don’t see it that way. There is no trade-off. What you are doing is selling your privacy for a feature. Amazon isn’t stealing this information and it doesn’t coerce us to buy our books there. We willingly shop at Amazon or chat on Facebook because we like the features that they have. And I think that people are increasingly taking the right precautionary measures. Many young people deactivate certain functions on Facebook or don’t post every last detail of their lives. Others have switched to services like Snapchat because they weren’t satisfied with Facebook any longer. The consumers have a whole range of options. I don’t see any freedoms restricted or infringed.

The European: But we now know that consumer data is being used by security agencies all around the globe to spy on citizens.
Reed: Hold on. If we’re talking about the NSA and other security agencies: that’s slightly different. I very much believe that the NSA is taking advantage of our data. I don’t think that they try to harm innocent people – I actually believe they are trying to do good – but they shouldn’t operate in such a secret and concealed manner. I also don’t think that the NSA deserves the lion’s share of blame. I mean virtually every government is part of the problem. For me personally, this whole affair is very frustrating. I was Obama’s Chief Technology Officer who had Internet Freedom written on his hands and now this. A friend recently told me that he believes American politics will play itself out over this.

The European: Do you share his view?
Reed: Congress isn’t happy about this state of affairs and concrete action will have to be taken. You can’t have a conversation about the NSA revelations without acknowledging that technology moves faster than legislation. In this case maybe ten or twenty times as fast. But this isn’t a new development. It used to be that way with telephone surveillance as well. The Internet has merely taken it to a new level. Now, legislation needs to catch up.

The European: How do you assess the chances of that happening?
Reed: It will take some time but there will be changes, no question. I only fear that we will follow the German example and start to overprotect data.

The European: There obviously need to be checks and balances. But that also means that the whole idea of the “free Internet” is nothing more than an illusion. It’s simply choosing between state regulation and state surveillance.
Reed: I don’t think that’s true. We don’t need state regulation to make the Internet surveillance-free. You as a consumer can choose to avoid the programs and sites that are tracking you.

The European: That takes a lot of insight and knowledge and would only shift responsibility away from the corporations in question.
Reed: Let’s talk about food!

The European: Food?
Reed: Many people only eat meat that is anti-cruelty to animals or products that are free of pesticides and other chemicals. How do they do that? By educating themselves, by reading the label on the product etc. Now why shouldn’t we be able to do the same thing on the Internet? Besides, I don’t really think that people are that concerned about their data.

The European: How do you mean that?
Reed: I think that this whole discussion about data protection has been overblown by journalists and old white people who don’t understand how the Internet works. In many ways, it’s a made-up problem. It’s the new Rock’n’Roll. It’s the new “Can you please turn your music down – I am trying to sleep!” The Internet is like Elvis Presley’s hips.

The European: Interesting comparison
Reed: Go ask people in their forties in East Germany what they think about data collection and they will tell you that it is a bad thing. Now ask them what their children think and they will respond: “I don’t know, they are on Facebook all the time.” The consumers have spoken and we should respect that. Acting like we are in a better position to evaluate this is just plain wrong. I know a lot about the Internet so should I be allowed to formulate a rule for using it? No. State surveillance must be limited by regulations but private organizations should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they follow the regular laws and regulations that apply to everybody. Why do we think that we need new rules for browsing the Internet when it is actually like walking down the street?

The European: You want consumer sovereignty instead of governmental regulation; a neo-liberal Internet so to speak.
Reed: The Internet should be as free and independent as possible. When a specific website or service no longer fulfills its purpose, the consumers will just kill it off. Will Facebook last forever? Of course not, something much better will come along.

The European: On your website, you publish a lot of personal data – like your current weight or body temperature and your last known location. Why do you expose this quantified self?
Reed: Why should it be secret? I don’t publish everything but I don’t care if people know how much I weigh. There’s no real answer to why I am doing this. I just think the more data you have, the better.

The Europeans: Why?
Reed: I can easily track things. If somebody asks me if he saw me at a specific time at a specific place, I can easily find out. I just want to collect as much data as possible, in case I need it at some point.

The European: Aren’t you afraid to become too measurable and predictable?
Reed: No, as I said at the beginning: human nature is far too complex for that to happen. Big data can give you an 80% prediction but that still leaves the 20% of uncertainty. I mean we humans are crazy; we do crazy things. Big data cannot predict that.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Cory Doctorow: “The universe wants us to have secrets”

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