Reflections from the 10th Safer Internet Day Conference in Berlin, February 5th 2013

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Safer Internet Day Conference in Berlin, organized by the Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture and BITKOM, the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunication and New Media. The conference title, ‘Big Data – Gold Mine or Dynamite?’ set the scene; after my little introductory speech on what big data really means and why this is a relevant topic for all of us (industry, consumers, and government), the follow-up presentations pretty much focused either on the ‘gold mine’ or the ‘dynamite’ aspect. To come straight to the point: I was very surprised, if not slightly shocked at how deep a gap became visible between the industry on the one side and the government (mainly the data protection authorities) on the other side.

While industry representatives, spearheaded by the BITKOM president Prof. Dieter Kempf and speakers from IBM, IMS Health, SAS, and others, highlighted interesting showcases and future opportunities for big data, Peter Schaar, the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, seemed to be on a crusade to protect ‘innocent citizens’ from the ‘baddies’ in the industry.

One could of course argue that this perspective is an inherent part of a data protection job, but I doubt if this is what citizens and consumers really want. Yes, I’m an industry analyst but I’m also a citizen and a consumer at the same time. I personally would very much welcome a clear data protection framework that allows our economy to grow and companies to offer all the great enhanced new products and services that become possible with big data technology – while at the same time shielding my privacy. Current regulations in Germany don't seem to provide this balance, don’t provide the necessary clarity, or simply don’t exist. Yes, there will always be some black sheep in a competitive economy, but we should not penalize everyone because of a few exceptions.

Missing regulations are worse than strict regulations. Companies need to have a framework that offers the confidence for investments – even more so in Germany where companies tend to be more conservative and risk-averse. Without a clear framework for big data scenarios (Who can do what with what data? Which use-case scenarios require the data owner [customer] to actively opt in or opt out?), the German economy will get stuck in a serious competitive disadvantage.

The solution is not to try and push this missing data regulation back to the technology: During the panel discussion, Peter Schaar suggested, for example, that smart meters in future should be so smart that they can handle any possible data scenario and that customers would be able configure this super-smart meter at home (e.g., what data to forward to whom under which circumstances). With all due respect to the vision of our Commissioner for Data Protection, I do not believe that customers really want to program a super-smart meter at home or pay a higher energy bill because of such devices. Technology can't solve the problem of missing data regulation. Government needs to accelerate the effort to create a framework in which technology can be used appropriately.

We need to decide what big data stands for in Germany: ‘big opportunity’ or ‘big angst’? It is in our hands to shape the future.

What do you think of big data – do you see it mainly as an opportunity or a threat?

Please leave a comment or contact me directly.

Best regards,