A Call for Privately Owned Data Accounts

Digitalisation raises serious questions about national security and citizens’ autonomy in digitalised democracies, PhD-student Anja Salzmann points out.

Nicolai Astrup
Gonzalo Fuentes / NTB scanpix

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In an article in the weekly newspaper Morgenbladet in Norway, Salzmann discusses what she calls “the Achilles heel” of Norway ́s digitisation strategy. The article prompted engaging discussions in social media for several weeks in November 2019. The text below is a translated and reworked version of the text that was published in Morgenbladet.

Norway is one of the frontrunners in digitalising public administration, and the current Norwegian government has a progressive strategy of digitalisation. Norwegian politicians demonstrate the will to centralise public data, and they plan to force local and regional municipalities to share their data with the government. However, the concentration and central administration of public data is accompanied with an enormous responsibility to ensure the highest standards of data security. The process also raises fundamental questions about data ownership and digital self-determination.

The increasing reliance and dependence on digital infrastructures makes nation states more competitive but also introduces various risks and fundamental political questions. These questions represent ‘the Achilles heel’ of Norway’s digitisation strategy.

Digital infrastructures lead to a new political and economic shift of power within nation states and the global agenda. Digital data has emerged as the most important resource and currency in the economic logics of what Shoshana Zuboff (2019) calls ‘surveillance capitalism’.

The behaviour, actions and interactions of people, machines and organisations produce large amounts of data, leaving uncontrollable digital traces on the Internet. Big tech and media companies are already using this data to sell customised advertisements or to train algorithms, and these practices will eventually influence how citizens will be able to participate in a society guided by algorithmic decision making.

Therefore, it is important to consider new solutions that ensure people’s ownership of their data. Several researchers and activists are working on conceptual and technical solutions that guarantee high standards of data security and digital self-autonomy. The German Fraunhofer Institute in Karlsruhe, for example, has devised a solution that is based on the idea of a privately owned data account, where data is combined with special conditions and time limits for usage, providing data account owners an overview and improved control of the combinations and usage of their private personal information.

Salzmann works on a PhD-thesis on mobile phones in journalism, and frequently engages in online debates on implications of new technologies and new forms of surveillance.