Thema Datenschutz

Apple, Google & Co.: Kommerz im Klassenzimmer

Der Corona-Lockdown hat die Bildungskluft hierzulande deutlich offengelegt – nicht zuletzt wegen der fehlenden digitalen Ausstattung in den Schulen, kritisierte »Blätter«-Redakteurin Annett Mängel in der Juni-Ausgabe. Diese Kluft lasse sich jedoch nicht allein mit Tablets und Apps schließen, mahnen die Bildungsforscher Tim Engartner und Lisa-Marie Schröder.

Der Corona-Schub: Mit Highspeed in die smarte Verwaltung?

Die Corona-Pandemie hat viele Unternehmen unvorbereitet erwischt. Innerhalb weniger Tage mussten deren Beschäftigte, soweit sie es überhaupt konnten, überstürzt ins Home-Office wechseln und ihrer Arbeit mit Hilfe digitaler Werkzeuge von zu Hause nachgehen. Doch nicht nur für die Wirtschaft, sondern auch für den Staat und seine Verwaltung stellt die Coronakrise einen echten Belastungstest dar. Den Großteil der Behörden traf die Pandemie ebenso unglücklich wie die Wirtschaft.

Ostasien: Avantgarde im Coronakampf?

Anders als in Europa haben die meisten Staaten Ostasiens die Coronakrise erstaunlich schnell in den Griff bekommen – trotz der engen wirtschaftlichen Verflechtungen mit dem stark getroffenen Nachbarland China. Vor allem Südkorea, Taiwan und Vietnam gelten mitunter als Avantgarde im Coronakampf: Die Länder verzeichnen insgesamt nur äußerst wenige Todesopfer sowie eine geringe Zahl an Neuansteckungen.

Biometrische Videoüberwachung: Die neue Hochrisikotechnologie

Mitte Januar deckte die „New York Times“ auf, dass mehrere hundert Ermittlungsbehörden und Privatunternehmen weltweit eine Software namens Clearview nutzen. Diese erlaubt es, Fotos von Personen innerhalb weniger Sekunden zu identifizieren. Mit wenigen Klicks lassen sich die Namen der Gesuchten, ihre Anschrift und berufliche Tätigkeit sowie ihr Freundeskreis ermitteln.[1]

Social control 4.0? China’s Social Credit Systems

Bild: Public Domain

With China’s geopolitical ambitions currently at the centre of attention, the domestic policies of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are going largely unnoticed.[1] Yet it is becoming clear that internally, China is also undergoing wholesale transformation: by the year 2020, the CPC aims to introduce digital systems for social control nationwide. Through the Social Credit Systems (SCSs), some of which have already been in operation for four years, the ambition is to produce a score for every Chinese citizen based on their behaviour.[2] 

An enormous amount of data is being captured to calculate this: payment practices, criminal records, shopping habits, online browsing and messaging behaviours as well as social behaviour in general. Conformity leads to rewards such as cheap credit, job progression or a speedier journey through security checks. By contrast, undesirable behaviour carries the risk of punishment.

The SCSs have access to many private and state databases. In 2014, the CPC permitted eight private providers to develop their own digital rating systems. All the systems use algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to calculate points or scores in an automated process. At the same time, the CPC began installing state scoring systems in selected ‘Special Zones’.[3] When the SCSs are made mandatory across the country in around two years’ time, the intention is that all Chinese citizens as well as companies will have access their own centrally recorded points account.

The CPC is promoting the SCSs as a milestone on the path towards the ‘Socialist Harmonious Society’. Officially, the scoring systems are intended to modernise governing capacity and promote trust within society as well as between the government, population and economy. However, the capabilities afforded by the systems also mean that they can be viewed as an instrument of social control. With China’s economic rise over the past decades, there has been a growth in socio-economic inequality, resulting in social tensions. In 2014 alone – the first year of the SCSs – there were a total of around 90,000 disturbances in China, officially described as ‘mass incidents’ – an average of around 250 per day. This figure has since risen.[4] 

Instruments of social control

In order to deal with these disturbances, China is drawing on its millennia-old tradition of state centralisation and bureaucracy. Systems of control justified through Confucianism partly persisted in the Leninist organisation of the People’s Republic. These included the household registration system Hukouand the assignment to a social unit known as Danwei– where each unit supervised its members and kept political records on them (Dang’an).

These structures formed the basis for decisions on promotions, party membership and even marriages. After the death of Mao Zedong, some systems of control lost significance as a consequence of the political transformations of the reform era. However, state propaganda became more significant after 1989.[5] 

With the SCSs, China is entering a new phase of surveillance and control in which the CPC is combining the potential of analogue and digital surveillance, of propaganda and subtle forms of discipline. The development of the Internet as well as mobile devices like smartphones (‘smarps’) and wearables – smart watches or glasses – has offered security services and propaganda departments new means of surveillance and influence.

At the same time, the CPC is profiting from the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese Internet.[6] Not only is the Chinese web subject to strict regulations, access is also restricted by the ‘Great Firewall’. Internally, the ‘Golden Shield Project’ is the principle means of monitoring online events. This includes the ‘Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision’, or the ‘Network Supervision Bureau’ for short. There are also several other government departments, ministries and authorities responsible for internet surveillance.[7] 

Alongside a growing number of specially trained police officers and inspectors employed from the private sector, AI systems are increasingly being used to trawl the Internet for any statements critical of the regime.[8] Additionally, an army of regime-friendly commentators are active in online forums, known colloquially as the ‘Fifty Cent Party’ (五毛党). They are accused of attempting to influence public debate in support of the CPC.[9] 

China’s web giants: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent

The CPC itself viewed the Internet from its very inception as a form of communication to be controlled. State censorship measures are not, however, aimed at suppressing critical comment about the regime completely. Rather, the CPC seeks to pre-empt the emergence of large-scale collective action.[10] Furthermore, as with censorship measures in general, many of the Chinese attempts at control can be at least partly circumvented. China therefore has a relatively heterogenous online landscape.

This landscape is nonetheless different from that in the West. Since the Chinese web is largely screened off from the rest of the World Wide Web, it is also not dominated by the US tech giants. Instead, distinct commercial structures have formed. The three largest companies – Baidu (百度), Alibaba (阿里巴巴) and Tencent (腾讯) – are known as BAT. They not only supply the infrastructure for the SCSs but are also at the forefront in the development of AI worldwide.

All three companies have access to enormous reserves of data.[11] The search engine giant Baidu also operates China’s largest online encyclopaedia and the payment app Baidu Pay. Alibaba, the company known to most western customers as ‘AliExpress’, is in turn the biggest player in Chinese online retail. It also provides a popular consumer-to-consumer platform, Taobao Wang, used by approximately 470 million people a month. In addition, Alibaba holds about a third of the shares in China’s most popular microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, used by around 380 million Chinese people monthly. The company’s financial services group includes the social credit system ‘Sesame Credit’ and the popular payment app Alipay. In the past year, the Alibaba Group announced turnover of around 8.3 billion US dollars. Since 2016, it has also been the owner of the Hong Kong-based daily, South China Morning Post.

The third company in the group, Téngxùn, is known in the West as Tencent. Amongst gamers, it has been a household name outside China for many years due to its involvements in video game companies. However, Tencent also has shares in the globally popular social media (SocMe) service Snapchat – a fact that is much less well known. Further key services are QQ and WeChat: with almost 900 million active users, QQ is China’s most popular messaging service; WeChat is a messaging app for smarps that reaches around a billion people worldwide. With the WeChat Pay option it also constitutes a payment app used across China.[12] 

(Meta) data and other digital traces

For Chinese Internet users, these services are part of everyday life. Around 95 per cent of users access the web either via a mobile device, either in addition to a PC or exclusively.[13] Like any web user, they leave behind huge digital footprints – personal details and data about their online behaviour – which is collected and evaluated by both commercial and state entities, which can then identify, categorise and classify users.[14] This data forms the basis for the SCSs and score calculation. The scoring is carried out with the assistance of algorithms and AI systems – a process which is not made transparent to users.

Digital systems have two further traits that are particularly relevant for the SCSs: on the one hand, stored data can be duplicated and traded any number of times; on the other hand, digital systems do not forget. What is more, the Chinese SCSs constitute hybrid systems: they incorporate both digital and analogue data in their evaluations, in other words not only online but also offline patterns of behaviour. This has been enabled partly through the increased use of ‘smart’ cameras with facial recognition in public spaces.[15] The integration of analogue and digital surveillance is particularly advanced in the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang – where the number of ‘mass incidents’ is also comparatively high.

Alibaba’s Sesame Credit

Alibaba’s Sesame Credit System provides a good illustration of how scoring is carried out. Like western companies, Alibaba skims off massive amounts of data from its users, as SocMe services supply information on their moods, preferences and ‘friendships’. Data on product orders and interactions with web banners is also captured in detail. At least as important are payment processes and internet searches, which are augmented with metadata on pages accessed and dynamic data. Scoring is then made within five areas: the user’s credit history, their liquidity, their personal details, their habits and behavioural patterns, and their SocMe contacts.[16] The lowest Sesame Credit System score is 350 and the maximum 950. The current evaluation process rates the use of Alibaba products particularly highly.

Alibaba’s Sesame Credit System in some ways resembles bonus programmes like the Payback loyalty card in Germany. By registering for this service and thereby permitting the release, use and sale of personal data, users receive concessions which increase with their score. In the Sesame Credit System, users can – after a specified score level – apply for immediate loans or loan products, without also having to pay a deposit.

Even in areas related to security, there are advantages to be gained. After a certain score level, security checks at airports can be passed through more quickly. Benefits are available outside China too: as of 2015, the embassies of Singapore and Luxembourg offer simplified Visa conditions for Chinese citizens who have reached a certain number of points.[17] In order to calculate this, the Sesame Credit System collaborates with numerous other commercial and public databases – including, also since 2015, China’s largest dating service Baihe, which holds intimate data on around 90 million people. The Sesame Credit System also incorporates databases from Chinese courts – with consequences for those with convictions, who have to accept additional restrictions.[18] 

The implications of this are demonstrated by one of the latest clampdowns: as of 1 May 2018, citizens on a government blacklist can be prevented from traveling by rail or by air for up to a year.[19] Sanctions were already possible –  albeit in a milder form: last March the National Development and Reform Commission disclosed that so far over 9 million people had been banned from flying, while more than three million had been unable to buy top-class train tickets because of negative data entries.[20] Those affected include people who had supposedly published false information on terrorism – an offence open to flexible interpretation worldwide.

Playful surveillance: The gamification principle

It remains to be seen how extensive the SCSs will be in 2020, when the CPC aims to introduce them nationwide. In the West, they are already being compared with two classic conceptions of the penal and disciplinary system: Bentham’s panopticon – in particular in its interpretation by Michel Foucault – and George Orwell’s dystopia, 1984.[21] However, such comparisons do not capture the full dimensions of the SCSs. The Chinese scoring systems are a form of technological surveillance involving commercial and state actors in equal measure. At the same time, and unlike Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’, they are characterised by elements of participatory play, and therefore by a far greater degree of free will and involvement from those observed.

The technique known as ‘gamification’, which plays an important part in the development of computer games, plays a key role.[22] Its aim is to hold the attention of players for as long as possible, simultaneously generating positive emotions towards the game. Today, gamification is deployed in practically all areas of society – including in the military, management and advertising.

The SCSs motivate users not only through scores, but also through variations in level and ‘mini games’. Scoring allows people to compare themselves with each other, thus encouraging them to increase their own score. Even the prospect of receiving small awards when on a low score motivates people to participate – an effect also evidenced in the popularity of loyalty programmes in the West. Recruitment is a snowball effect: having been enlisted, users in turn advertise the product to those in their own social circles, luring more people into the system. The services are thus able not only to gain a large market share, but also to become monopolies.

In East as in West: The net under surveillance

Although forms of playful surveillance are by no means used only in China, the typical reaction in the West to reports on Chinese SCSs is one of perturbation. This shows not only that western prejudices about China still exist, but also how uncritically processes of digitalisation are perceived in this part of the world.

Western discourse all too often ignores the fact that the great majority of the Internet is already commercialised through and through. It is a space where companies collect and evaluate massive amounts of data in order to produce and sell detailed user profiles.[23] This spying ranges from credit data evaluation to the investigation of consumer behaviour through loyalty systems, and from bike and car hire services to petition platforms such as[24] 

In the West too, this continual process of comparison and evaluation is leading to the steady dissolution of the private sphere, alongside a culture of conformity in private life and an increasing avoidance of risk in professional life.[25] As a result, there is a threat of greater ‘social rigidity’, which makes action against injustice and inequity more difficult.[26] This development has been made easier by the widespread assumption that data and especially algorithms are largely neutral – despite the fact that computer code is written by people with their own personal convictions, who of course also make mistakes.[27] 

In addition to this comes the fact that it is above all companies and states that are driving digitalisation, meaning they are the ones who determine its direction. Even if governments, in contrast to private companies, must at least theoretically justify themselves to their citizens, we have known at the latest since the Snowden leaks that western states crave data just as much as authoritarian regimes. Even a good five years after the NSA affair, nothing has changed in this regard. On the contrary, online surveillance has since become even more profuse – not least thanks to collaboration between governments and the private sector.[28] 

For individuals, protecting oneself against mass surveillance is becoming ever more difficult – especially since we understand less and less about the ‘smart’ devices that we use every day and the techniques of manipulation that are employed. Hardly anyone knows what data traces are left behind when surfing the internet unprotected, let alone what detailed conclusions can be drawn from this data about our personal thoughts and desires. We are thus not fully aware of how far our private sphere is already being dissolved. Encryption and anonymisation services do offer some protection, but they cannot answer the questions of how technology and digitalisation are changing our society for better or worse.

Alongside illegal access, databases conceal another underestimated danger. Governments and companies can pass away, but the data remains. We cannot foresee the conclusions that future governments or companies and their CEOs will draw from our data or the categories and algorithms by which we will be evaluated.

The Chinese SCSs therefore pose to all of us the question of why massive amounts of data about us are collected, moved, evaluated and sold. What kind of society will digital mass surveillance lead to? And what can we do to counter it? One thing is clear: data is power. It is a power that we cannot physically sense and hence, much like nuclear radiation, one whose dangers we can only dimly perceive. It is therefore time to deal globally with the question of the shift of power and manipulation in the age of digitalisation. Its implications force us to pose anew questions of power and legitimacy, privacy, autonomy and the good life – and to decide whether we want to remain passive users or become actively involved in shaping systems that influence our lives.

[1] See: Ulrich Menzel, ‘Tribut für China: Die neue eurasische Weltordnung’, in Blätter, 6/2018, 49–60. 

[2] See: ‘Chinese State Council Notice, Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System’ (2014–2020),, 14.6.2014. 

[3] Keting Zhang and Fang Zhang, ‘Report on the Construction of the Social Credit System in China’s Special Zones’, in Annual Report on the Development of China’s Special Economic Zones, Singapore 2016, 153–171. 

[4] See: ‘Chinese Police Hunt Protesters after Incinerator Demonstration Turns Violent’, in The Guardian, 12.5.2014. On the connection between changes in approach to mass incidents and propaganda, see Katika Kühnreich, ‘Die äußere Harmonisierung des inneren Aufstands – “Harmonische Gesellschaft” und “Massenzwischenfälle”’. Universität zu Köln 2014, 

[5] See: Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, Lanham/USA 2010. 

[6] Rogier Creemers, ‘Cyber China: Updating Propaganda, Public Opinion Work and Social Management for the 21st Century’, in Journal of Contemporary China, 2.12.2015. 

[7] This coexistence and interdependence of jurisdictions is typical of the Chinese Internet. It makes it more difficult for citizens to intervene, which also affects issues of data protection, since there is no central point of contact. 

[8] See: Meng Jing, ‘SenseTime Unveils AI Product to Police Online Content – The World’s Most Valuable AI Start-up Just Moved into Online Censorship’, in South China Morning Post, 25.4.2018,; Katie Hunt and Xu CY, ‘China employs 2 million to police internet’,, 21.5.2016 as well as Meng Jing and Jane Li, ‘News App Toutiao Seeks 2,000 Content Reviewers, Party Members Preferred’, in South China Morning Post, 4.1.2018. 

[9] Rongbin Han, ‘Manufacturing Consent in Cyberspace: China’s “Fifty-Cent Army”’, in Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 2/2015, 105–134. On the use of AI see Meng Jing, ‘SenseTime Unveils AI Product’, 2018. 

[10] See: Gary King et al., ‘How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression’, in American Political Science Review, 2/2013, 326–343. 

[11] Tencent’s SCS caused controversy as it was one of the first to also factor in its customer’s friendship circles when calculating creditworthiness. See Meng Jing, ‘Tencent to use social networks for credit-rating services’,, 8.8.2015. 

[12] See: Baidu, ‘Baidu | Investors | Financial Reports’,; Alibaba Group, ‘Alibaba Group Announces September Quarter 2017 Results’, Press statement of 2.11.2017, www.alibabagroup. com; Tencent, ‘Financial report’, 

[13] See: ‘China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), Statistical Report on Internet Development in China’, January 2017, 

[14] This practice was originally used in criminology and psychiatry to identify deviant behaviour. For more on this see: Andreas Bernard, Komplizen des Erkennungsdienstes: Das Selbst in der digitalen Kultur, Frankfurt a. M. 2017 [The Triumph of Profiling: forthcoming, Polity Press]. 

[15] Josh Chin, ‘Chinese Police Add Facial-Recognition Glasses to Surveillance Arsenal’, Wall Street Journal7.2.2018 also Li Tao, ‘Just Jaywalked? Check Your Mobile Phone for a Message from Police’, South China Morning Post, 27.3.2018. 

[16] See: Yongxi Chen and Anne S. Y. Cheung, ‘The Transparent Self Under Big Data Profiling: Privacy and Chinese Legislation on the Social Credit System’, The Journal of Comparative Law, 2/2017, 356–378, here: 361. 

[17] See: ‘Credit-based tourist visa application for Luxembourg, Singapore’,, 10.7.2015. 

[18] See: ‘Justice comes to virtual world’,, 2.7.2015. 

[19] See: ‘Travel bans for rule violators take place on May 1’,, 1.5.2018. 

[20] See: ‘China improves credit blacklisting mechanism to avoid undue punishment’, www.xinhuanet. com, 6.3.2018.

[21] See: Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York 1975; George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, London 1990. See also: Benjamin J. Kees, Algorithmisches Panopticon. Identifikation gesellschaftlicher Probleme automatisierter Videoüberwachung, Münster 2015 as well as Zygmunt Bauman, David Lyon and Frank Jakubzik, Daten, Drohnen, Disziplin: Ein Gespräch über flüchtige Überwachung, Berlin 2014. 

[22] On the history of the various aspects of gamification see: Steffen P. Walz and Sebastian Deterding, The gameful world: approaches, issues, applications, Cambridge 2015. 

[23] See: Paul Boutin, ‘There’s Very Little Oversight in the Industry of Data Brokers’, Newsweek, 30.5.2016. 

[24] See: Klint Finley, ‘Meet, the Google of Modern Politics’,, 26.9.2013. 

[25] See: Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, London 2018.

[26] See: Tijmen Schep, ‘What is Social Cooling?’, 

[27] See: Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, New York 2016. 

[28] See: Daniel Leisegang, ‘Fünf Jahre NSA-Affäre: Die neue Macht des BND’, in Blätter, 6/2018, 21–24.

Silicon Valley oder die Zukunft des digitalen Kapitalismus

Als man mir die Frage stellte, wem der digitale Kapitalismus gehöre, war ich zunächst unschlüssig. Mein erster Impuls war zu antworten, die Frage sei falsch gestellt, weil die Unterscheidung zwischen einem digitalen Kapitalismus einerseits und dem hoch finanzialisierten Kapitalismus auf der anderen Seite schwer zu treffen, ja eigentlich unsinnig sei.

Privacy as a human right

Edward Snowden and the control of power

In June 2013, Edward Snowden's revelations about the massive surveillance programme of the NSA and the British GCHQ caused global outrage. Almost two years later, the burning question is whether effective means exist to prevent blanket surveillance by the security services. One thing is for sure: there will be no return to the analogue era. If we want to enjoy the blessings of information technology, we will have to come to terms with the fact that data – including personal data – is processed en masse. It would be illusory to hope to reduce state surveillance activities to zero.
However, it would also be wrong to stick one's head in the sand and wait for things that may or may not come. There are more than a few ways we can stem the tide of surveillance and protect our privacy in the digital world – both at the legal and the political levels.
Laws provide protection only within their territorially defined sphere of validity. The construction of the Internet, on the other hand, is such that national and continental borders are technically irrelevant. For example, if a German web-user accesses the website of a German service provider, it is very possible that the data is routed via American networks nodes. International Internet companies save data on servers spread across several continents.
Hence, when it comes secret service activity, insisting on the national law is too simple. The US and British governments clearly had no problem with what their intelligence agencies were doing, so long as they claimed they were acting in line with national law. Since 2013, we know that this was a lie. Legitimizing surveillance by invoking national law also ignores the universal legal principles developed over the last century. Though these were a reaction to the atrocities of the Second World War – particularly the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 – and do not address the handling of information as such, they offer a basis upon which to civilize the increasingly globalized information society.
Then there is the fact that, particularly with foreign intelligence, laws effective in the field of operations are systematically broken. The NSA may very well be acting in conformity with US law and the GCHQ with British law, yet still be breaking foreign law. This is precisely what happened. For example, if a foreign secret service infiltrates a German computer using Trojan horse software, then that is an offence. Secret services that obtain the private data of German citizens by intercepting their telecommunications, or via the electro-magnetic fields of data processing facilities, are acting criminally. Just because spying does not contravene international law does not mean that spies cannot be prosecuted. German criminal law prohibits working for the intelligence services of a foreign country, for example.

Recalling human rights

The German authorities were nevertheless notably restrained in their investigation of the spying affair. Questions of evidence aside, this clearly had to do with considerations about relations with the US and the UK. This argument is absurd, given that the governments of both countries, in so far as they were responsible for the interception of confidential information from Germany, had damaged international relations themselves. As countries with strong democratic traditions, the US and the UK ought to have understood when other countries investigate offences committed against them. The fact that it took Germany's state prosecutor almost a year to launch an investigation into the interception of Angela Merkel's mobile telephone does not suggest any great determination on the part of the German authorities to clarify the matter. The far greater scandal of the mass surveillance clearly prevented them from forming an initial suspicion.
A fundamental – though often forgotten – principle of international law is that all state authorities abide by its stipulations. These include inalienable human rights. The Nuremberg trials were eloquent proof of the American and British prosecutors' resolve to institute internationally binding human rights and to enforce these through criminal law. Today, the US stubbornly resists subordinating itself to international legal norms.[1]
The territorial dilemma can only be solved by creating effective and enforceable legal instruments that make human rights a reality. This also goes for rights of privacy. Data protection campaigners have been demanding international privacy standards for years – without great success.[2] The Snowden leaks have kick-started the international discussion and reminded the broader public that data protection is about human rights. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration states that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."
The United Nations began concerning itself with the consequences of automated data processing back in the 1960s. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICPPR) of 1966 made the protection of privacy binding in international law. Countries that ratified the pact undertook "to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
In 1990, the UN General Assembly resolved upon a series of recommendations concerning the use of personal data in automatized databases. However, the member states remained responsible for implementing these in law. For the 167 states that ratified the ICPPR, including the EU member states, the US and the Russian Federation – though not China – should have felt bound to article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights as a matter of course.
However, Snowden's revelations prove that this was far from the case. As Germany's Federal Data Protection Commissioner, I recommended strengthening the foundation of data protection in international law on the basis of existing legal instruments. I proposed that the German government and the European Union campaign for an international treaty: "A supplementary protocol to article 17 of the ICPPR would be a useful first step. For such a international protocol to become binding, it needs to be signed by 20 states – given the 27 EU member states, this is surely achievable. States that do not recognize it must show how they still guarantee data protection, privacy and secrecy of telecommunications."
Angela Merkel took up the suggestion a few weeks later, stating that the foreign ministry would be pressing for negotiations on a supplementary protocol to art. 17 of the ICPPR. The protocol would, according to Merkel, contain additional agreements on data protection that responded to contemporary technological developments – and also be binding on the activities of intelligence agencies.

The great climb-down

For a while it looked as if the initiative of the German government would meet with broad support in Europe and worldwide. However, in the following weeks and months numerous governments who had initially signalled their agreement began to climb down. When it became clear that a supplementary protocol to the ICCPR had few chances of succeeding, and would anyway have been a lengthy undertaking, Germany and Brazil, which also had been targeted for massive surveillance by the NSA, proposed a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly. Central to the draft was the demand that the human right to privacy was to be guaranteed outside the person's country, in other words independently of the territorial principle.
The Unites States opposed this. In a negotiating paper shown to Foreign Policy magazine, the US delegation emphasized that not every type of surveillance was to be condemned, but only that which "contravened laws".[3] Since the US and the UK referred only to their own laws, any resolution based on such premises would have been worthless.
After massive intervention by the US government and other members of the Five Eyes club (the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the resolution was eventually watered down, according to a "UN insider" quoted by Der Spiegel. The inclusion of "extra-territorial" espionage – i.e. spying carried out by one country on another – was a "difficult issue". However, the resolution continued to state that surveillance must be subject to international and not solely national law. At the same time, the term "surveillance" was redacted to "unlawful surveillance" and its "negative effects".[4]
Despite US pressure, the resolution adopted by the General Assembly, entitled "The right to privacy in the digital age", contained a clear message: the protection of privacy is an international human right that, in the age of global communications, must be guaranteed worldwide. Nation states were to ensure their "full compliance with their obligations under international human rights law" and "take measures to put an end to violations of those rights and to create the conditions to prevent such violations".
Most importantly, it was resolved that the issue surveillance would remain on the UN agenda. The Commissioner for Human Rights was tasked with reporting to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on "the protection and promotion of the right to privacy in the context of domestic and extraterritorial surveillance and/or interception of digital communications and collection of personal data, including on a mass scale".

European data protection law: A firewall against surveillance?

Important as the unanimous opinion of the UN member states is, it is not enough. What are needed are binding international laws that place a firewall against unauthorized global surveillance. Europe must continue to press for internationally enforceable data protection standards, regardless of resistance from the US, Russia and China, and the various authoritarian regimes that follow their example.
While modern ideas about the protection of the private sphere originated predominantly in the US, it is in Europe where they are more strongly anchored today. At the same time, the differences between the European nations should not be overlooked. The relatively mild response of the British public to the Snowden revelations shows that state surveillance is accepted there to a greater degree than in Germany. British cities are almost entirely covered by CCTV, yet this meets with little criticism; in Germany, such measures would be highly controversial.
Despite these differences, the European data protection standards and laws formulated over the past decades provide a good basis for restricting surveillance. The Council of Europe established standards very early on – long before the European Union – for guarantees of basic rights and data protection. Referring to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) committed members of the Council of Europe to the universal and effective recognition of those rights. Like the Universal Declaration, the Convention granted every person "the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". Unlike the Universal Declaration, the Convention is binding upon all its signatories. Although explicitly committing its signatories to granting these right only "within their jurisdiction", the universality of the stipulations means that they are binding in legal relations between countries and therefore cover the activities of state instances outside their own territory.
The specific dangers arising from the international exchange of data are accounted for in the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data of 1981. This served as the blueprint for data protection laws in many states inside and outside Europe. Its preamble states that "it is desirable to extend the safeguards for everyone's rights and fundamental freedoms, and in particular the right to the respect for privacy, taking account of the increasing flow across frontiers of personal data undergoing automatic processing". Article 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (2000) also contains an explicit right to data protection: "1) Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her. 2) Such data must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law. Everyone has the right of access to data which has been collected concerning him or her, and the right to have it rectified. 3) Compliance with these rules shall be subject to control by an independent authority." As a part of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Charter is directly enforceable European law. Data protection in Europe thus has a significantly stronger anchor than in the US or Asia.

Data protection and the Safe Harbour Agreement

The EU Data Protection Directive of 1995 also plays a crucial role. This commits the member states to guaranteeing high standards of privacy; all member states have transposed the directive into national law.
The Google decision of the European Court of Justice on the "right to be forgotten" in 2014 showed how important European data protection law is. The search engine was obliged to remove data from its search results in the case of overriding interest of the person concerned. The Court based its decision on the 1995 directive, according to which the operator of a search engine is responsible for the processing of the data.
The directive also stipulates that data may be exported only when an "adequate level of protection" is provided in the recipient country. The adequacy of the protection is decided by the European Commission; these criteria inform the Safe Harbour Principles, to which US companies receiving the data of European citizens must comply.
Negotiations had been going on with US government for years on how European data should be protected. The US had resolutely refused to introduce data protection laws compatible with European laws. In order to enable export of data from the EU to the US, the Safe Harbour Agreement was signed in 2000. Its basic idea was that, even without a general US data protection law, adequate protection could be assumed to be provided by US companies that had declared their commitment to the Safe Harbour principles. In return, the US government would ensure that the standards were upheld.
Companies belonging to the "safe harbour" were treated by the European data protection authorities similarly to companies handling personal data in Europe. European companies were therefore not obliged to obtain permits if they wished to transfer data to Safe Harbour members. Safe Harbour is now the most important instrument for the transfer of personal data into the US – over 4400 take part in the agreement, including all the big US Internet companies.

Criticism of Safe Harbour

From the start, the Data Protection Commissioners criticized the fact that the Safe Harbour Agreement lags significantly behind the requirements of European data protection law. The fact that US companies benefit from Safe Harbour as soon as they declare their acceptance of its conditions is a further problem. European companies transferring data to a Safe Harbour member do not require a permit from the Data Protection Authority in their own country; however the recipient company is not obliged before their inclusion on the Safe Harbour list to prove that they fulfil its requirements.
After the Snowden revelations, a further criticism came to the fore: that the safe harbour agreement excludes data processing in connection with national security. This derogation has been invoked by the US authorities as well as the companies who came under criticism for supplying data to the NSA – for example Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Apple and Yahoo.
If a US security authority investigating, for example, a terror suspect needs data from Europe, they should apply to the EU state in question for international legal assistance. Before the data is passed on, the responsible authority – in Germany it would be the ministry of justice – would then check whether the requirements have been fulfilled. This democratically correct, albeit laborious process is undermined when European data is automatically transferred to a US company, without being checked, on the basis of Safe Harbour, and from there ends up in the hands of a US intelligence agency. For this reason, pressure is building in Europe to cancel the Safe Harbour Agreement. The European Parliament has called for the agreement to be renegotiated and the German data protection authorities have declared it to be an inacceptable legal foundation for transferring data to the US.
Crucial to any replacement to Safe Harbour will be that it includes state access of data transferred from Europe to the US. It is no longer tolerable that US authorities should process and copy European data without appropriate democratic guarantees. A general derogation on the basis of "national security" cannot be accepted.

EU data protection law: Tightening the screw

Europe's future role in setting international data protection standards will all depend on the fate of the forthcoming EU Data Protection Regulation, which would replace the 1995 Directive. The Regulation would harmonize data protection rules in the member states and improve cooperation between the Data Protection Authorities. An equally important, though less obvious, aspect of reform concerns the scope of application of EU data protection laws. Companies such as Google that provide their services from America are still largely able to avoid European law. This would no longer be possible under the terms of the Regulation. The EU Commission has proposed that European data protection law be applicable when companies offer services or products on the European market and thereby handle personal data from the European Union. Google and other companies active in Europe would then be obliged to observe European law just like companies based in Europe. Even though the 1995 Directive served as the basis for the ECJ ruling that EU law could be applied in the case of a search engine operating from outside Europe, there needs to be a general guarantee that companies active on the European market are unable to bypass EU data protection law. The reform would ensure this.
In March 2014, in order to do something to stem the massive surveillance by foreign agencies, the European parliament proposed the introduction of a further "thumbscrew" in EU data protection law: article 43a or the so-called "anti-FISA clause". This states that in cases where the authorities or the courts of a non-EU country order data to be accessed that is subject to European data protection law, EU companies providing this data require permission from a European data protection authority. The parliament's proposal is as follows: "No judgment of a court or tribunal and no decision of an administrative authority of a third country requiring a controller or processor to disclose personal data shall be recognized or be enforceable in any manner."[5]
This new rule would be applicable if the FBI or the NSA were to order data to be accessed that were saved in the Google or Microsoft cloud. Companies that receive such orders would be obliged to register this to the responsible data protection authority in the EU. They would be allowed to provide the data only if doing so was judged to comply with European or international law. Moreover, the persons concerned must be informed about the request as well as the authorization. Participation in secret surveillance programmes would thereby be prohibited.
Were this rule to pass into European law, it would inevitably bring conflict with the US. According to US law, companies that supply data to the security agencies are bound to strict secrecy. They are even forbidden from publicizing the fact that any such request was made. Whether this conflict can be solved is impossible to predict. However, if economic or political pressure were to force Europe to abandon its data protection standards, the resulting loss of trust would be impossible to repair.[6]
This is another reason why a general data protection treaty between the EU and the US is urgently needed. It would guarantee that EU citizens receive effective legal protections against the US state. The US government continues to refuse EU citizens the same data protection guarantees provided to US citizens in Europe. The NSA affair has done nothing to alter this – despite Obama's announcements that the US would in the future respect the rights of non-Americans abroad.
The US must guarantee that data of European provenance saved on American servers is protected from the state by means of the same legal mechanisms that protect the US in the EU. The negotiations of a High Level Contact Group have been held up for years because of resistance from the US; these need to be brought to an acceptable conclusion. If this fails to happen, then Safe Harbour cannot be allowed to continue: mass violations of the right to the protection of personal data contained in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights cannot simply be ignored. However, solution is not currently in sight because the US has been unwilling to make significant concessions on any of these central issues.

The political check on power

Breaking the cycle of surveillance is also a matter for society. Crucial is how we are going to deal with risk in the future. Hardly anyone would agree that 100 per cent security is possible. Yet this is exactly what our post-industrial society seeks when dealing with violence, crime and terrorism. When politicians such as George W. Bush declare security to be the topmost priority, they do so with the support of the majority of the population.
At the same time, the Snowden revelations have caused significant shift in public opinion. Just how far freedoms were curtailed after 9/11 has now become visible. As David Lyon argues, politics has remained territorially bound while power extends globally. Without political control, power becomes the source of insecurity, while politics loses meaning in relation to social problems and fears.[7]
For that reason, it is crucial that greater transparency is introduced into the anti-terrorism activities of the secret services. The measures and the laws that are supposed to improve our security urgently need to be reviewed. Claims that mass surveillance measures have prevented terrorist attacks can no longer be accepted without evidence. This is generally withheld, very often under pretext of national security. Academics and independent data protection authorities analysing the results of mass surveillance have come to a sobering conclusion: that its impact on security has been practically nil.[8] Classical, targeted investigations bring far greater improvements. This doesn't exclude the possibility that innocent people enter the sights of the security services, however they do so far less than in mass surveillance.

A new civil rights movement

Also certain is that better data protection will not happen of its own accord. Only when the dangers posed by surveillance are brought to public attention and debated politically will it be possible to counter the interests in favour of ever more refined instruments for the registration and control of our behaviour. The struggle over data protection is a political struggle. Law is not extraneous to society but it is the result and motor of social development. The series of judgments of the German constitutional court on rights of privacy since the early 1980s were not merely expressions of legal exegesis but the result of social debate about the balance between freedom and security.
Today, civil society is no longer prepared to accept violations of privacy as inevitable. Cracks are appearing in the hermetic system of secret surveillance established after 2001. The Snowden leaks have shaken this edifice to its foundations. However its walls still stand. The struggle remains essential.
We should not forget whom we have to thank for what we know about these immense human rights violations. Edward Snowden is a classic whistle-blower: someone who raises the alarm when confronted with immoral behaviour. The fact that he has "got stuck" in Moscow does him no discredit. If western democracies intend to remain true to their values, then they must offer him asylum. Ultimately, it is their treatment of individuals that proves whether governments take civil and human rights seriously – whether it is a matter of real political will or mere lip service.
Translation by Simon Garnett
[1] The United States is one of the strongest opponents of the International Criminal Court, which began operating in 2002. Although US signed its statute in 2000, it withdrew this two years later. Since then, the US has attempted by means of bilateral treaties with countries that have recognized the authority of the ICC to prevent US citizens being brought before the Court.
[2] See the resolution of the 31st International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners from 4-6 November 2009 on international standards for the protection of privacy.
[3] Colum Lynch, "Exclusive: Inside America's plan to kill online privacy rights everywhere",, 20 November 2013
[4] "Resolution gegen Abhöraktionen: Die Uno kuscht vor der NSA" [Revolution against surveillance: The UN submits before the NSA],, 26.11.2013
[5] See:…
[6] Also crucial will be how the European Commission conducts its negotiations with the US government on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There is a danger that the treaty could weaken European Data Protection. See: Ralf Bendrath, "Trading away privacy: TTIP, TiSA and European data protection",
[7] Cf. Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, Liquid Surveillance, Cambridge 2012
[8] See e.g. the Report of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, 23 January 20


Controlling the future: Edward Snowden and the new era on Earth

In June 2013, Edward Snowden began to uncover the machinations of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), prompting a worldwide debate about the alarming power of the secret services. Snowden laid bare the extent to which the quintet of secret services −− the "Five Eyes" from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand −− had spied on citizens around the world, and the planetary system in place for stealing, storing and using data for their own purposes −− thus violating everyone's privacy, which Article 12 of the United Nations Charter on Human Rights protects. As a result, freedom of expression, the basis for political participation as well as of resistance against power, was fundamentally threatened and with it, democracy as such.
The secret services justify their activity, be it the acquisition of knowledge from the planetary cloud, from the encrypted mobile phones of government chiefs such as Angela Merkel or Dilma Rousseff, or from the mass of (un)encrypted emails of ordinary citizens, with the flimsy argument that it is geared toward the early recognition of terrorist activities and, therefore, a matter of public order and security. However, the worldwide spying operation is more than a gigantic trawl through the World Wide Web in the name of security. Rather, it perfectly matches the patterns of thinking and acting as dictated by the geo−engineering of a new epoch in human history. A "planetary stewardship",[1] the efficient management of life on planet Earth, is administered using sophisticated technologies, in order to channel not merely information flows but other diverse crises of our time and associated processes – all for the purpose of maintaining the ruling capitalist system.
That data theft has been systematically organized everywhere on planet Earth where access to a hard drive and a cloud is possible: this much the US government has conceded. However, making this concession incurred relatively little risk, since the whole world already knew it to be the case, and only awaited official confirmation. We can take Obama at his word when he says that he will desist in the future from secretly and silently eavesdropping on the German chancellor, and that global data theft should instead be rationalized, refined and slimmed down. However, the issue has by no means been solved. It fits far too well with other projects involving "planetary engineering works", collectively referred to as geo−engineering. This is a departure from the linear development of science and technology that underpins the "acceleration of growth", which in Germany is even stipulated by law.
The planetary data theft that Snowden revealed is the harbinger of a new age. It is seamlessly interwoven with the other projects that, together, comprise "planetary stewardship", the intention of which is to safeguard Earth systems against the threat of collapse – as well as from associated political conflicts, resistances and revolts. But why this immense input into spying on a large portion of the world population? So that one can better keep these people under control, so that one can weed out every shoot of political resistance in good time, so that information is not only tapped into, but also – as it were "interactively" – manipulated, in the manner that already happens today on the Internet with the assistance of elaborate algorithms. Global medial manipulation Almost 50 years ago, in 1968, criticism of media manipulation and the battle against it signalled a democratic departure. The "dispossess Springer" campaign was directed against the manipulative power of the media, against a Hetzmasse or "baiting crowd", as Elias Canetti would have called it.[2] At this point, it was already known that media manipulation is an indispensable building block for securing power on a global scale. In 1964, the Brazilian military established a cruel dictatorship, Pinochet's dictatorship followed in 1973 in Chile, then the military putsch in Argentina. These murderous regimes were politically and materially supported by the CIA and respected politicians such as Henry Kissinger really assisted this trade in death. The repression, persecution and murder of members of the opposition and of trade unions, as well as leftist politicians, artists and representatives of the church were also coordinated by the secret services of Latin American military dictatorships – within the framework of "Operation Condor" in Chile, which enjoyed the active support of the United States. Back then, the justification for the brutal repression followed the same lines: it was a defence against terrorism.
Hence nothing could be more negligent than to leave the defence of democracy to the secret services. Tens of thousands were "disappeared". To this day, the crimes have not been fully investigated. To demand or expect self−enlightened behaviour from the British and US secret services in connection with the NSA affair is therefore farcical – to do so would be to show that nothing has been learnt from history, and fail to do justice to the dramatic abuses of human
rights currently taking place.
Using the information technology of a new geological period, the secret services can process digitalized knowledge such that they can control humanity's fortunes. The secret services are in a better position to do so today than they were half a century ago. In an interview in exile in Russia, Edward Snowden remarked that, "the biggest problem we face right now is the new technique of indiscriminate mass surveillance, where governments are seizing billions and billions and billions of innocents people's communication every single day."[3]
Nonetheless, to many the mass collection of data seems more like an absurd theatre. On the Left, it prompts tired commentary rather than a campaign to dispossess the data thieves: let them drown in the flood of data that they direct to their hard drives. Given current attempts to control the world's knowledge, this kind of (naive) cynicism does not further the cause of justice. Ultimately, the frenzied collection of data fits far too well with global geo-engineering strategies drawn up long ago – not only for combatting terrorism, but also for coping with the global energy crisis, climate change or the threat of food shortages as the world population continues to grow.
The geoengineers are convinced that they can overcome the limits to resources, the phenomenon that Richard Heinberg described as "peak everything"[4], – albeit at a high price: leaving behind an increasingly large "ecological footprint" on degraded ecosystems and breaking all "planetary boundaries"[5] – with unpredictable consequences for the planet's peoples and nature. There is thus one thing in this business – in which numerous large corporations and states have long been implicated – that is indispensable: the control of information and, therewith, of people themselves. Anthropocene or "Capitalocene" The new era was named some time ago: geoscientists have already christened the new geological period the "Anthropocene", following the suggestion of climatologist and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen – the "geological age that man created". This term is not so new. Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani already spoke in 1873 of the "anthropozoic era". Thus a revolution did in fact receive a name. For the duration of the Holocene that had gone before, the favourable climatic conditions of an interglacial period had prevailed so that, in contrast to previous millennia, human civilizations could develop. The Neolithic Revolution, which had its origin a good 9000 years ago in Mesopotamia and brought with it sedentary farmers, was only possible in the interglacial period of the Holocene. But the civilizational, cultural and technical progress made following the "Promethean Revolution"[6] and the discovery of fire had also inspired the biblical message (expressed similarly in other monotheistic religions): "fill the Earth and subdue it!"
This message dates almost as far back as the New Stone Age. However, it could only be realized with any rigour and on a planetary level as a new, second Promethean Revolution altered the Earth: the fossil-fuelled Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The Weltorganismus or "world organism" of which Alexander von Humboldt spoke[7] was henceforth treated as a mine containing above all energetic and mineral raw materials, as well as a rubbish container. In this respect, nothing has changed between then and now.
People always act within a specific societal constellation or formation and, since the so-called early modern period, this is predominantly capitalistic and European.[8] Thus, it would be more accurate to describe the Anthropocene as the "Capitalocene" or capitalozoic era. Today, more and more of its devastating consequences are becoming apparent: the "world organism" grinds on under global forces, the reach of which is always expanding, forces associated with the valorization of capital led by ever larger and evermore powerful corporations. The result is the evermore comprehensive safeguarding of power over the world's poor and exploited in the name of strengthening capitalist structures through the deployment of private and public security services.
In this planetary context, the data theft by the NSA and the "five eyes" really does constitute an assault on civil and human rights. This much was made clear in the announcement by the president of what is today the "only superpower", confirming that the collection of information and its use to defend US security interests would continue. Who would realistically have expected anything else? After all, the most powerful man in the Capitalocene is also driven by the capitalist dynamics of commodification and surplus creation, and bound only by the interests of his country. However, this striving for a form of enrichment that is as free of limits as possible – whether with regard to material or information – contradicts the fundamentally finite nature of life on Earth. Spaceship Earth and the three Earth systems: Energy, material and knowledge Immanuel Kant, in his essay "Perpetual peace" of 1795, wrote that man, "may only claim the right of resort, for all men are entitled to present themselves in the society of others by virtue of their right to communal possession of the earth's surface. Since the earth is a globe, they cannot disperse over an infinite area, but must necessarily tolerate one another's company".[9] This means that nature and its limits oblige people to respect the laws of constitutions, of nations and of world citizenship that visitors on Earth have drawn up. For, Kant continues, if I "say that nature wills that this or that should happen, this means [...] that she imposes a duty on us to do it".[10]
However, it is precisely this moral duty that is not fulfilled, the restrictions that exist on the Earth's finite surface that are not respected. What ensues is the continuation of politics by other means, albeit means that ride roughshod over limits defined by the laws of constitutions, nations and human rights, including in the sphere of information and communications. The logic of capitalist accumulation simply cannot be reconciled with the rules of Kantian morality, based as these are on earthly limits: it goes against the vision of a "perpetual peace".
The limits within which Earth systems function provide a framework that the US-American heterodox economist Kenneth Boulding famously conceptualized in 1966 as "the economics of the coming spaceship Earth".[11] The evolution of life – and particularly of humanity and human civilization on Earth – was dependent, according to Boulding, on the development of three Earth systems: those of energy input and output, of material flows and of knowledge.
In terms of energy supply, we help ourselves to the solar energy stored in fossilized form in coal seams, reservoirs of natural gas, instead of using the endless flow of beams from the sun. Energy use on Earth is not oriented toward flows but stocks. On the one hand, this is convenient and has brought us a high rate of growth and considerable wealth over the past 250 years (since the levels of energy harvested from fossil reserves was significantly higher than that which could have been achieved through relying on solar power alone). On the other hand, there is an obvious disadvantage: fossil reserves are being plundered more and more, including when unconventional sources are discovered. Beyond which, the emissions from burning hydrocarbons have in the interim turned the Earth into a greenhouse. A foretaste of what this will mean in the future is provided by the "extraordinary weather events" of recent years. The reinsurers are already ringing the alarm bells.
Material flows constitute the second Earth system, which changes if we exploit reserves of mineral raw materials. The philosopher Günther Anders sarcastically remarked that we treat the Earth like a mine to be exploited: that what can be exploited is exploited.[12] The waste and the emissions are of little concern to us, as long as they can be disposed of in a "neighbour's garden" or as long as associated costs can be passed on to the consumer in the price of the product (externalized). In the absence of legal title or moral justification – and in contrast to Kant's exhortation – Earth's visitors mercilessly plunder the planet.[13] We also apply this principle of maximum exploitation to agrarian raw materials, to plants and even animals, which we subject entirely to our – as Boulding puts it – cowboy mentality, as if there were no natural limits and ethical restrictions in "spaceship Earth".
The third Earth system in Boulding's spaceship metaphor is the information system. This is, on the one hand, permanently shifting. People guess and discover things previously unknown to them, acquire knowledge from others, look out curiously for something new, recognize connections and, thus, continuously add new insights to the current stock of knowledge. On the other hand, they also forget how to deal with things that have become useless, they discard a lot of that which has become obsolete. Thus, the current stock of knowledge, which the French theologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky described as the noosphere, is constantly shifting and never at rest. Peter Sloterdijk brings this noosphere into play in his argument that the various spheres on Earth are in no way limited and that, therefore, the limits to growth can be overcome through the growth of limits.[14]
In the short term, this is entirely correct: the limits to biomass affecting the production of charcoal in Europe during industrialization in the eighteenth century were overcome through the mining of "the subterranean forest"[15], that is, of coal seams under the Earth's surface. The limits to conventional sources of energy are being extended today too, through the tapping of unconventional "renewable" sources. However, new limits always make themselves felt at some point, such that this trend cannot continue without end – even if, from the perspective of current generations, it is in fact hard to agree on just where that end might lie. Knowledge within and without limits – and the economy of Earth systems The sphere of knowledge alone is constantly shifting and apparently subject to limitless change. However, this does not apply to the information system. It is not limitless, at least not if one is concerned with the current stock of knowledge stored at any given point in time exosomatically (that is, not endosomatically in the human brain), whether in books or digitally on PC hard drives and cloud servers. This stock of knowledge and of information is in part freely available (open source, in accordance with the Wikipedia principle), in part purchasable at market prices if, with the aid of patents or copyright rules, free knowledge ("Thinking is free!") is converted from a public into a private good. However, this knowledge is in part not generally accessible at all but "locked inside the heart" or defined by powerful information monopolists as "top secret".
Knowledge is however decisive for the development of a fourth Earth system, namely, the economy. This is something that the economist Boulding does not even mention or perceive as such – probably because all economic processes have a double character. Conventionally only one characteristic is perceived as "economy", that comprised of trade in goods, profiteering, the straining after and targeting of a return on capital. However, the second characteristic of the economy lies in a continuous transformation of energy and materials, something that today has global dimensions. This follows a logic that is capitalist through and through, involving the constant commodification and exploitation of nature. In respect of which it is therefore correct that, as Kenneth Boulding wrote in the 1960s, "A machine, for instance, originated in the mind of man, and both its construction and its use involve information processes imposed on the material world by man himself. The accumulation of knowledge [...] is the key to human development of all kinds, especially to economic development.[16] However, this knowledge must draw on both characteristics of economic activity, on the material and energetic flows in the planetary systems and on the economic laws and naturally on the interests that economic actors pursue as well. The valorization of capital, the targeting of profit is after all always the other side of economic processes.
Thus we are confronted with the well-known paradoxes already described: all Earth systems are limited. Only the noosphere can be limitless – if, that is, we allow knowledge to shift and disregard the bits and bytes stored on servers, hard drives and by the NSA. For these bits and bytes constitute a stock, and whoever has it at their disposal rules over it and all the applications, services, etc. that can be spun off from it. The capitalist economy is however programmed to permanently expand, something that the pressure of financial markets ensures and that actors such as the troika promote politically and thus reinforce.
But if the economy is so dependent on information, as Kenneth Boulding and many others have pointed out, then having information at one's disposal is a major economic and competitive advantage that also pays politically, since in this way, dominance can be secured (not to be confused with hegemony, which demands consensus).
Even if the globalized economy is an Earth system, it is of course divided into sites within nation-states, which compete bitterly against one another for finite riches. But it is advantageous to accumulate knowledge even when it is not produced in one's own schools, universities, think tanks and laboratories. In the light of which, it is not surprising, but for all that no less shocking, that, as Edward Snowden stated, the United States spied on a huge scale on economic competitors. Other governments and their secret services certainly do the same too, albeit not yet on such a planetary level. Seizing digital territories: The accumulation of knowledge through dispossession On a grandiose scale and at the expense of its competitors in Europe and elsewhere, the US government follows a strategy that the social geographer David Harvey has described as "accumulation through dispossession".[17] To date, the concept was largely used with reference to the "land grabs" taking place worldwide and to material and energy resources. The mass theft of data has however shown that the concept has to be extended to the digital seizure and dispossession of territory.
To tap into global stocks of knowledge thus becomes a business principle, to which states also commit themselves in the global competition for the best locations. Industrial espionage is part of the deal. That is, the collection of all available information on the strategies of partners, competitors and rivals. But the brain drain is also part of the same strategy, such that the well educated, the brightest minds from peripheral countries are drawn to the metropolises (which goes hand in hand with fortification against "benefit tourists" or "poverty migrants") – phenomena that seem on the surface of the matter to have nothing to do with data theft on the part of the NSA and its consorts.
The new geological period certainly does not come across favourably. Snowden has made us aware of how the NSA and the "Five Eyes" manipulate the Earth system where information is concerned. The planetary art of engineering will only become genuinely dangerous for our survival if it is employed in the stabilization of the energy supply and the climate – through the creation of artificial clouds for example, with unpredictable consequences. Such "end-of-the-pipe" technologies will only come into play if nothing changes fundamentally as regards the reigning patterns of consumption and means of production, but also concerning political mechanisms of control.
We still have a window of opportunity of sorts to hinder global geo-engineering through effectively informing people of its consequences and through political resistance. In order to organize this, we need knowledge and, above all, informational autonomy and freedom, that is, a world without planetary data theft on the part of the five secret services. The human rights violations perpetrated by the six secret services of the Latin American dictatorships together with the CIA through state terror during the 1960s and 1970s should present us with a lesson from which we can learn half a century later.
Translation by Ben Tendler
[1] Cf. Will Steffen et. al., "The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship", AMBIO 40/2011, 739-761,
[2] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart, Gollancz, 1962
[3] See "Live-Chat mit Edward Snowden", 23 January 2014,
[4] Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Island, 2007
[5] Cf. also: Johan Rockström et. al., "Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity", in: Ecology and Society 2/2009,
[6] Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press, 1971; cf. also Elmar Altvater and Birgit Mahnkopf, Grenzen der Globalisierung, Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2007.
[7] Cf. also Schwägerl, Menschenzeit, 181 ff
[8] From which patriarchal and white mastery also stems.
[9] Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf, Reclam, 1984, 21; "Perpetual peace: A philosophical sketch", in Kant, Political Writings, edited by Hans Reiss, trans H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 102-3
[10] Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden, 30; "Perpetual peace", 112
[11] Cf. Kenneth E. Boulding, "The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth", in: Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, edited by Henry Jarrett (RFF Press, 1966)
[12] Cf. Günther Anders, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, vol. II, C.H. Beck, 2002
[13] The extent of the pillage is documented in the 33rd report to the Club of Rome by Ugo Bardi, entitled Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014).
[14] Peter Sloterdijk, "Wie groß ist 'groß'?", in: Paul J. Crutzen, Mike Davis, et. al., Das Raumschiff Erde hat keinen Notausgang, Suhrkamp, 2011, 93-112
[15] Rolf Peter Sieferle, The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution, trans. Michael P. Osman, White Horse Press, 2001
[16] Boulding, "The Economics", 12
[17] Cf. David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford University Press, 2007

BND: Merkels schleichende Staatskrise

Seit den ersten Snowden-Enthüllungen vor zwei Jahren stellt sich die Bundesregierung als Opfer der US-Spionage dar. In den vergangenen Wochen hat sich jedoch gezeigt, dass auch der Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) an der weltweiten illegalen Überwachung mitwirkt und damit knietief im von Edward Snowden freigelegten Spionagesumpf steckt.