Culture

Self-determination in the digital age: Malte Spitz at TEDGlobal 2012

Malte Spitz

As curator Chris Anderson says, politicians don’t generally turn up on the TED stage. This year, there are two in a row, as Alex Salmond is followed by Malte Spitz, a member of the Green Party in Germany. “A mobile phone can change your life and give you individual freedom,” says Spitz. “With a mobile phone you can shoot a crime against humanity in Syria. With a mobile phone you can tweet a message and start a protest in Egypt. And with a mobile phone you can record a song, load it up to Soundcloud and become famous.”

Born in 1984, Spitz is from Berlin. He shows us an amazing picture of the city in 1989, as thousands of people stood up to protest for change and in doing so brought down the Berlin Wall. Spitz asks us to imagine that each of these people had a mobile phone. After all, that’s the case for most of us a few decades later. And then, he says, he wants to tell us his own story.

In the summer of 2006, the EU commission tabled a directive on mandatory data retention, saying that phone companies should store at least six months and up to two years of data on their users. People were horrified. Lawyers, journalists, priests, all sorts of people argued for “freedom, not fear.” Some went so far as to call the mandate Stasi 2.0, in “honor” of the feared secret police from East Germany.

Initially, Spitz was skeptical. How much information could the phone company really store anyway? So he asked Deutsche Telekom to give him the information. They promptly stalled. He asked again. They stalled some more. So he sued them. After some time, they settled, and the phone company sent him a brown envelope containing six months of his life in the form of 35,830 lines of code.

It was at this point that Spitz realized that this was no small problem. And so he decided to go public with his life. Together with the German newspaper Die Zeit, he created a visualization of his own movements over six months. The results were eye-opening. “You can see how I go from Frankfurt by train to Cologne, and how often I call [people] in between. All this is possible with this information. That’s a little bit scary,” he says. But as it happens, he doesn’t want this story to stop with him. He challenges us to think about what this means more broadly — and how it would be easy to use this information to track connections between people, to determine who are hubs and who are connectors. “If you have access to this information, you can control your society,” he says. It’s a blueprint for those looking to crack down on their people.

Malte Spitz

Think back to 1989. The question of whether those protestors had mobile phones is not innocent anymore. “If the Stasi had known who took part in the protest, if they’d known who were the leaders, this may never have happened. The fall of the Berlin Wall would maybe not be there, or afterward the fall of the Iron Curtain,” he says. That stops us all short.

What matters, Spitz argues, is self-determination. Just because state agencies and companies want to store information on us, that doesn’t mean we have to let them. “Self-determination and living in the digital age is not a contradiction. You have to fight for it every day.”

He concludes this well-received talk with an exhortation to the audience: “When you go home, tell your friends that privacy is a value of the 21st century and it is not outdated,” he urges. “When you go home, tell your representative that just because state agencies and companies have the possibility to store information, they don’t have to do it. And if you don’t believe me, ask your phone company what information they store about you. So in the future, every time you use your mobile phone, let it be a reminder to you that you have to fight for self-determination in the digital age.” Big standing ovation.

Photo: James Duncan Davidson