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Global Control: Your Toaster’s Double Life


Global Control

How can we navigate the internet without leaving a trail? Why do we distinguish between black-hat and white-hat hackers? And what exactly are crypto wars? Questions on data privacy and security in the internet often sound complicated. But many of them are answered very simply.
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Die Erfindung der Informationellen Selbstbestimmung

Germans have a special relationship to privacy. This undoubtedly has to do with experiences gained in the course of German history: Stasi spying in East Germany and observation and surveillance under the Nazi regime. In any case, it was not an accident that in 1983 thousands of people took to the streets to protest the census that the government intended to conduct. Legal actions went as far as the Federal Constitutional Court, bestowing upon the Germans a new basic right: informational self-determination – that is, the right to determine who can store and process what data about me. 

This right served as a guidepost for German data protection legislation, which also had, and still has, international influence. For example, on the new EU Data Protection Regulation, which is due to go into force in 2018. You can argue over how informationally self-determined we can still be in a digitalized world; but ideals can also have an effect.

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Der Staat und die Überwachung

The basic right to informational self-determination is a so-called right of defence against the state. It prohibits the state from carrying out surveillance of persons without a specific cause. At any rate, in theory. Recently, in the course of Edward Snowden’s revelations, we have seen that the extent of state surveillance has long since burst the bounds of all imagination. An investigative committee of the German Bundestag on the revelations has disclosed that the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) is entangled in the scandal. All this has resulted in only one political consequence: the competences of the BND have been expanded so that all the activities which were hitherto illegal have now been legalized.

The BND law is only part of a whole series of state surveillance measures. Data retention, for example, compels providers to store all connection data and to make them available if need be to the authorities. And further legislation is planned. The state here knows only one direction: more!
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Neue und alte Kryptokriege

If political measures against surveillance have proven ineffective, technical ones have been all the more effective. Since Snowden, a regular race for encryption has broken out. Apple’s iMessage, Facebook‘s WhatsApp and many other popular services are now securely encrypted. That this is possible at all is because the “cryptographic wars” were already won in the 1990s. At the time, American politicians sought to prevent the spread of secure encryption. Activists were able to establish the technology to the extent that politics could no longer rein it in. Recently, commercial internet services, which need to encrypt transactions, have been a key factor.

But today politicians are again up in arms and want to force Apple and WhatsApp to set up backdoors for the authorities and so, inevitably, make encryption insecure. Are we standing at the threshold of the next cryptographic war?
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Damit niemand weiß, dass du ein Hund bist

“In the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, says the dog while typing on the keyboard. The cartoon in the New Yorker from 1993 expressed what people used to feel about the internet. Before, anonymity was a natural characteristic of the Net. In contrast to the physical world, in “cyberspace” the preferred form of movement took place under an invented pseudonym. Many people tried on a different gender; identity was playfully explored. At the latest with Facebook, this changed. Surfing under your real name is today the norm. And since Snowdon, we can assume that at least the NSA knows which internet users are dogs.

Yet there is still anonymity on the Net for people who are not averse to effort. Anonymization services such as Tor allow you to effectively conceal your identity. They redirect internet requests through a complex system of encrypted servers until nobody can clearly identify your IP address – that is, your uniquely assignable internet address. If there are still dogs on the Net today, they are using Tor.
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Das geheime Doppelleben deines Toasters

So enough with the “internet of people”. This is what the industry seems to think, and has recently been building a computer into every TV and every light switch. But the “internet of things” has also created new problems because, as we all know, computers tend to be insecure. A DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack is when a server is bombarded with so many requests that it collapses. Hackers bring this about by using armies of remote-controlled computers, so-called “bot armies”.

Bot armies have been around for a long time, but they have never been as large as they are today. It turns out that computerized things can all too easily be “recruited” – that is, hacked – because of badly maintained software. With the internet of things, armies of unknown dimensions have arisen, which have recently managed to bring even important infrastructures used by Twitter and Amazon to their knees. Who knows – maybe your toaster was part of it.
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Von weißen und schwarzen Hüten

Always these hackers! Can’t we put a stop to them? Careful! Not all hackers are alike. We are talking here about an almost forty-year-old subculture, which has brought forth a diverse cultural landscape. The world of hackers can be envisioned as a kind of eco-system. There are hackers who attack systems to steal or destroy data. These are called “black hats”. But there are also “white hats”, hackers who likewise attack systems, but with the aim of drawing attention to security gaps and so of making our systems safer. In Germany they have even banded together in a club: the Chaos Computer Club, which regularly gives its opinion on questions of computer security.

When states want to hack, which now happens, we speak of “cyberwar”. In cyberwar, the state looks for security holes through which to penetrate into computer systems. But only as a black hat. We are still waiting for a white hat in the form of a state.
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Willkommen in der Welt der Plattformen

You want to buy something. Come to Amazon! Taxi? Take an Uber. Accommodations? Airbnb. You have your friends on Facebook, you read the news on Twitter and chat with your family on WhatsApp about what you watched this evening on Netflix. We have long been living in the world of platforms. Big, monopolistic technology providers have pushed themselves between us and our needs, regulating our lives. And it’s so comfortable! But platforms are not normal businesses.

We have manoeuvred ourselves into a dependency in which nothing works without them. States have long been turning to Facebook to solve their problems. Mark Zuckerberg has mutated into a politician; perhaps the most powerful politician in the world – doesn’t he manage the data of two billion people? How can we limit the power of platforms without hurting ourselves? Because few of us want to live in a world without Amazon and Facebook.

And you? Take our self-testand discover whether you're careless or cautious with your data.

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Du lebst in deiner eigenen Realität

In 2011 the American internet activist Eli Pariser warned that our social media behaviour would lead to a distorted perception of reality. Because we always follow or befriend only people we know, we are living increasingly in a “filter bubble”. The common social reality is being lost.

Looking at the political landscape of the United States in particular, the thought doesn’t seem far-fetched. It has never been so easy to curate our perception of the world. Not only are there today an incredible number of new sources; social media tools like Twitter and Facebook also make it child’s play to compile their content.

But isn’t the filter bubble also an expression of a new form of self-determination? And isn’t traditional journalism also a filter? Is there anything like an unfiltered reality at all? Perhaps it is already a start to become aware that we are always living, even offline, in a filter bubble.
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Ich weiß, was du nächsten Sommer tun wirst

Data are not only stored and collected but above all analysed. Before, people spoke of “data mining”; today, they call it “big data”. Big data means first of all that the amount of data to be analysed is too big to be processed by a single computer. For this reason, methods have been developed to distribute the data sets to several computers, which then analyse them in parallel. Interestingly, the larger the quantity of data, the more conclusions that can be drawn from it. In statistics, this is called the “law of large numbers”. The larger the sample, the more precisely the statistical effects can be measured.

Many people already believe that the behaviour of human beings can be predicted. Such prediction, however, has worked so far only for masses of people, almost never with individuals. For example, data scientists can predict that 26.4 out of a hundred unmarried bus drivers will drink a beer after work – but not which ones will. For purposes of knowing whom to target for after-work beer advertising, however, this suffices.
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Der Computer, dein Freund und Herrscher

Intelligence is nothing else but big data. Our brain processes insane quantities of data, far more than could even the most powerful computer systems. That is why the latest big data technology is based on the functioning of the brain. Virtual neural networks simulate the workings of our synapses and analyse the data. This works amazingly well. In “machine learning” (also called “deep learning”), neural networks are fed with huge amounts of data – for instance, images. This forms structures that react to what the networks have learned, with the result that they can identify faces and objects in photos.

This technology has just begun to spread, but some scientists are already alarmed: what if artificial intelligence systems become more intelligent than we are? If advances in computer performance continue as they have done, in a few decades artificial intelligence systems could be a thousand times more intelligent than human beings. Let’s hope that they are then nicer to us than we have been to, for example, ants.
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Concept and texts: Michael Seemann

Illustrations: Julia Klement

Editor: Jakob Rondthaler

© 2017 Goethe-Institut

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Chapter 1 Global Control

Your Toaster’s Double Life

Chapter 2 Die Erfindung der Informationellen Selbstbestimmung

The invention of informational self-determination

Chapter 3 Der Staat und die Überwachung

The state and surveillance

Chapter 4 Neue und alte Kryptokriege

Cryptographic wars, old and new

Chapter 5 Damit niemand weiß, dass du ein Hund bist

So that no one knows you’re a dog

Chapter 6 Das geheime Doppelleben deines Toasters

The secret double life of your toaster

Chapter 7 Von weißen und schwarzen Hüten

Of white and black hats

Chapter 8 Willkommen in der Welt der Plattformen

Welcome to the world of platforms

Chapter 9 Du lebst in deiner eigenen Realität

You’re living in your own reality

Chapter 10 Ich weiß, was du nächsten Sommer tun wirst

I know what you’ll be doing next summer

Chapter 11 Der Computer, dein Freund und Herrscher

The computer, friend and master

Chapter 12 Impressum


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