Data usage instead of data protection

Digitization Data usage instead of data protection

Published on 25.08.2021 by Prof. em. Dr. Dr. h. c. Hubert Österle, University of St. Gallen

It’s not data protection that really matters, but data usage. Who honestly wants to drive without any access to navigation services now? Driving using a physical road atlas is almost inconceivable to generations Y and Z. Driving with the aid of an app is stress-free, safer, time-saving and a lot less energy-consuming.

To enjoy these comforts, we have long since given up control over navigation data, whether we’re using street navigation, the Wander app, looking for restaurants/hotels, using public transport or weather services. The service providers then either sell on our location data in the background, or they use it so that other services can place more targeted adverts or messages.

Anyone who takes the time to look through their personal navigation history on Google will find a highly detailed, almost seamless log of activities. Through various sources, Google also knows who we’ve been in contact with, as well as their location history. Google is able to trace our meetings with friends and relatives many years back. So far nobody has been able to explain to me why a hysterical debate about data protection had to prevent effective contact tracing. The data available prior to the pandemic would have allowed both Google and Apple to trace any contact with infected individuals, and with sufficient certainty. Seeing as this potential was not tapped into, Google and Apple took advantage of the situation and went about refining contact information by making location tracking (supported by Bluetooth) even more accurate, which they did practically at the request of the public health authorities. We would still do well to use the data already available to us to manage pandemics more effectively.

A short survey of Internet users ‑asked respondents to what extent they would be willing to sacrifice data privacy if it produced an effective coronavirus app that would prevent another potential lockdown. 66 percent of respondents say they would give up all their data privacy or give it up to a large extent, 27 percent said they would do so to a limited extent, and only 8 percent said they would not give up any (see survey in German). Do privacy advocates echo this view?

Another example of how navigation data could potentially be used can be seen in the storming of the Capitol Building in Washington on 6 January 2021 by an aggressive mob. We can assume that at least 90 percent of everyone involved used at least some sort of app, which would have recorded their location, and in turn their involvement in this criminal act as well. It is hard to say whether this data was or is actually used, and to what extent this would be covered by various laws. In any case, there is still a debate about the extent to which it is acceptable to use enforcement measures to make data available in the name of state security.

Another entirely innocuous way that data can be used is for user profiling in order to personalize services. Navigation data doesn’t just tell us which people we have come into contact with, it can also tell us what events we take part in, what bars and restaurants we visit, where we go shopping, how much time we spend driving, hiking, or even not moving at all. Product and service providers use location details and activity history to make suggestions (personalized ads) and to create filter bubbles (so you view the news you are interested in).

There was international outrage when companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google suspended the accounts of the then-President Donald Trump and his supporters on social media, i.e. the fact that private companies had resorted to censorship. Some pointed out the lack of democratic legitimacy, whilst others drew attention to the risk of state manipulation. As Hanna Henkel wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Influential platforms being given a legal monopoly on political influence would be the worst of all outcomes as far as regulation is concerned.”

It is important not to reduce the subject of data to an abstract concept of data protection, but to showcase the opportunities and risks that actually come with using data. We need an open data infrastructure that makes data available to small-scale and large-scale service providers in equal measure, breaking the monopoly of Internet giants, so we can ensure that the interests of citizens are safeguarded through diversity and competition at all times. Ultimately, we need to come up with rules, regulations and tools that can help monitor data usage for the good of the data provider, i.e. the population.


Due to the current situation, Connecta Bern will again be held as a digital event in 2021. Connecta is renowned for shining a light on the diverse nature of digitization and this year will be no different with content presented across the three formats of Connecta Blog, Connecta TV and Connecta Talk. Find out more here:


Prof. em. Dr. Dr. h. c. Hubert Österle, University of St. Gallen

Hubert Österle works in life engineering, his goal being to tap into digitization to improve our quality of living.

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