"Privacy is non-negotiable"
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"Privacy is non-negotiable"

He was Switzerland's Commissioner for Data Protection. He took on Google, and won. He was spied upon for years by the State Protection Agency. Hanspeter Thür knows what he is talking about when he says, "Thoughts are no longer free."

Mr. Thür, we'd like to show you a photograph. Do you recognize this athletic man on a bicycle?

That's me. Nice picture, right? It was taken last year, just as I reached the top of the Albula Pass. A friend took it as a sort of victory shot.

We downloaded it from your WhatsApp account. Just a year ago, you said that as a matter of principle, you don't use that chat service. What happened?

There you see the power of facts. I have relatives living in South Africa, Australia, California and Switzerland. A nephew suggested that we set up a family chat so we could stay in touch on a regular basis. This is actually practical. With many such services nowadays, you have to ask yourself two main questions: How great is the benefit? How much of my privacy must I surrender? In the case of WhatsApp, I let down my guard for family reasons.

Hanspeter Thür

Hanspeter Thür

Photo: Cyrill Matter

We're a little disappointed that even a staunch defender of privacy has given in. WhatsApp delivers certain user data to Facebook, its parent company, including your cellphone number.

In my defense, I have to say that when the general conditions and terms were changed, I immediately informed my community and showed people how to change their privacy settings to keep WhatsApp from passing along certain user data to Facebook.

In broader terms: Why is privacy worth protecting?

It is a fundament of freedom, an element of human dignity. It enables us to make our most personal decisions with autonomy. This is why secret ballots are crucial for fair elections. A free state protects a personal sphere that is nobody's business but mine and that maybe even my closest friends don't know about. A state structure that cannot or will not guarantee this is at least tending in the direction of authoritarianism. The protection of privacy is one of the non-negotiable principles of a free and democratic state.

Where is privacy most threatened?

The technological revolution carries incredible potential for capturing, evaluating and using personal data. Imagine this: The amount of personal data that is digitally collected doubles each year. Ten years ago, I still believed that nobody could even process so much data, much less use it. I was wrong. Today, it's literally possible to find the needle in the haystack.

Those who want to do away with cash, are seeking total control of the citizen.

We provide our data voluntarily and receive something in return. What's so bad about that? After all, we're responsible citizens.

As long as we live in a functioning democracy, this may have no consequences. But even a basic democratic order is not set in stone, not even that of Switzerland. And we are currently seeing evidence that the trend is not toward liberalism and democracy, but rather toward authoritarianism – we can see this in the West as well as the East.

Aren't you somewhat lapsing into alarmism?

There's this lovely old folk song: "Thoughts Are Free." Today, we must say: Thoughts are no longer free. And if thoughts are no longer free, this cuts to the core of a liberal state. For the first time in human history, someone can peer into our heads. With our internet searches and online shopping, our likes and tweets, we expose not only our habits, but also our feelings and thoughts, which can be collected, analyzed and interpreted. Entire business models are based on this, from social networks to customer loyalty programs. This data yields a personality profile that reveals in detail our preferences, our thoughts including our political views, our daily routine, possibly even health aspects.

So what do we have to fear?

In the digital age, there is no such thing as harmless data, something that people are far too oblivious about. Life insurance companies in the United States are already examining data from online profiles to gauge the lifestyle and life expectancy of their customers, and they turn away customers with no presence on social networks because their risk profile cannot be determined. And we have just learned that people entering the United States may soon have to disclose their phone contacts and social networking passwords. And this is just the beginning. Facebook has only existed since 2004, Twitter since 2006 and Instagram since 2010.

The standard argument is "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

My response is always this: Do you want everything that happens in your private life to become public? That argument assumes that a person who claims a right to privacy is doing something that is prohibited or reprehensible. From such a perspective, nothing is private any more. I find it outrageous that people nowadays have to defend themselves for not sharing something with everyone. This is exactly what bothers me the most about social media: The standard settings are such that very little of my profile is private. But it should be exactly the opposite. The providers must be required by law to comply.

Do we have to protect people from themselves?

No, but we must make it possible for them to exercise their rights. After all, technology is advancing so rapidly that most people simply cannot keep up. Therefore, we need a better statutory framework. The problem, of course, is that an individual can hardly compete against the state or against companies like Facebook or Google. Therefore, an authority such as the Data Protection Commission must fight to represent these interests, as I did because of Google Street View.

During the 1970s and 1980s, you were spied upon by Switzerland's State Protection Agency. What was that like?

I was blacklisted. People were assigned to monitor me personally. That is a nightmarish thought. I don't want to trivialize it, but what those people found out about me is nothing compared to the information that is now available via social media.

After each terrorist attack, the calls become louder that we need to monitor potentially dangerous people even more closely.

I understand that in times of uncertainty, people ask whether it is possible to do more. Of course there is a need for surveillance by the police and intelligence agencies. But we must not succumb to the illusion that we could solve the problem if only we did enough eavesdropping, tailing and wiretapping. Even with seamless surveillance, you can't keep someone from barreling into a crowd with a car, for example, as we saw in Stockholm, London or Berlin.

How do we find the balance between safety and freedom?

As a society, we have to keep negotiating this again and again. In a functioning state, people can agree on a balance. Perhaps this needs to be adjusted again later; it's a process. But it's very clear to me that we cannot sacrifice certain principles of the rule of law to an obsession with security.

Where do you draw the line?

Even now, big data analytics make it possible to create personality profiles that indicate which individuals are likely to commit crimes. What do we do when an algorithm calculates a probability of 80 percent or even 90 percent? That's where I draw the line. We cannot arrest people without well-founded suspicions, or lock them away virtually indefinitely without a court decision.

We'd like to give you a few more keywords and ask for your comments.

Go ahead.


Without cash, there can be no privacy. Those who want to do away with cash – and more and more governments are tending in that direction – are seeking total control of the citizen. The state wants to know in detail what I spend my money on. Many people fail to see this connection. Giving up cash also has a great deal to do with giving up liberties. Responsible citizens must be free to determine how they invest their money, how they spend it or whom they support with it – and the state should not be watching them.

Banking confidentiality?

I have always vigorously defended it. How I organize my finances is part of my private domain. Nobody needs to know what kind of resources I have and what I do with them. But someone who takes advantage of this secrecy, for example to evade taxes, forfeits this protection. Unfortunately, some banks have turned banking secrecy into tax evasion as a business model. Freedom cannot be used to shield a crime.

Automatic exchange of information?

I can live with that to a certain degree, as long as constitutional principles are upheld. But I have major problems with it if it includes states that do not function according to democratic principles. An automatic exchange of information with Russia, for example, is unacceptable to me.

Have we already lost the battle for privacy?

No, but we find ourselves at a critical juncture. Ultimately, people's indifference is also a danger. If we want to salvage privacy, we cannot avoid personal responsibility. We must be more alert as citizens, we must inform ourselves more fully, and we must develop a critical awareness.