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Privacy

'Stop spying, and educate about the Internet'

Following the recent surveillance scandals, German Green party internet expert Malte Spitz says that people need to understand better how they can avoid surveillance.

There's been a lot of reaction to the issue of data privacy in Germany. Why is it that Germans react so strongly to data protection issues and why are their attitudes different from people in other countries?

On the one hand, I think it's from the special situation of German history over the last 80 years. Germans already lived through two dictatorships with two secret agencies to spy on the population. Under Hitler the Gestapo, and also in the time of the GDR there was the Stasi. The second part is that this is just a sensitive point for Germans - that they always want to know what is happening with their data and information. This makes Germany different not only to other European countries, but also other countries in the world.

Is there a difference in the way young people, in their teens or twenties, react?

I think the younger generation has a different feeling about it, I think they are more open about issues, especially when it comes to social media, but I would say the whole population in Germany is sensitive to questions of privacy and data protection because people always want to have self-determination on the information, on the data, and it doesn't matter if they are 20-year-olds or already 60. We've seen over the last years huge social movements on the issue of digital rights. People went onto the streets to protest against surveillance mechanisms. I don't know why the younger generation are so eager to protest against surveillance, but I am happy about it because I feel the same. You can also see in the ACTA protests one year ago - it was also a European movement, and you had large protests in Poland or Austria.

There's been widespread criticism here, but we're not seeing protests. Why is that?

I think we are still at the starting point of this. Even if we knew that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are spying in Europe and all over the world, most people are still shocked by this. We will see over the next weeks that people are understanding what is happening there. On the one hand they are changing how they are communicating online. I think in the future many more people will use encryption services for their e-mails or chats, and I think there will also be different forms of protest going on - maybe not just on the streets, but also when it comes to the national elections this autumn.

What indications have you seen that people will be changing their online behavior?

Encrypting e-mails has been popping up as a solution where you can still communicate secretly. This isn't something everyone will use, but many more people are asking about it - how does it work, et cetera - so, just based on the feedback I've gotten over the past few days, I think there is something changing. I wouldn't say in that in the future half of Germany will communicate on encrypted e-mail servers and will use Tor servers to surf the web, but I do think it will become much more popular. Especially when it comes to business and industry, they also will look at their own security mechanisms and see about changing how they are using e-mail services, social media communication and so on.

Do you think it's a paradox that many Germans willingly sign away their data rights on online platforms?

If the people are using such social media platforms, or cloud services, or apps on smart phones, and they know what is happening in the background - which kinds of information is collected and shared with third parties - then it is okay if the people know what is happening. You have to know what is going on and you also have to have certain rights, and can ask the company to provide this information, and ask them to delete what they have stored on you.

So is maybe user awareness really the issue, and not just that we're being spied on?

I would say it's only one point: you have to fit all these points together. Firstly you have to stop spying, secondly you have to have clear data protection legislation for the 21st century that gives people the right to say no and please delete, and thirdly you have to educate people on how to use the Internet such that they know the technical background and how to protect themselves. Under the term media literacy it becomes much more important that you also know how to encrypt e-mails, how to use secure Internet lines, how to use pseudonyms online, et cetera.

One argument is that if you have nothing to hide, you shouldn't fear such spying. What's your view on this?

I don't want to live in a country where the state authorities can look into my private life without any reason, without any kind of control. It's a fundamental right to have privacy, to have your home - which also today means your digital home - protected from the state and private companies harvesting your information and analyzing your digital behavior. I think this is cutting down someone's individual freedom. And even if you don't have something to hide, you would always have the feeling that someone is looking over your shoulder at your screen, seeing what you are typing and what you are talking about. I don't want to live in a society and a country where people always have this fear in their minds. People should be free to use online tools and talk freely on the phone. This spying has to stop.

Malte Spitz is a member of the German parliament for the Green party and an expert on internet policy.

DW.DE