Author: Dirk Schlimm, EVP & Advisory Board Member
The world can be full of surprises. One of them happened on September 28, 2016 at the old brickyard in Munich. The brickyard was the site of the Telefonica Digital Innovation Day (DID) with a number of speakers promoting the digital future; as one would expect. But this is Germany, where concerns over data privacy and security loom large over all things digital.
Enter Dr. Wilhelm Eschweiler, vice president at the German Federal Network Agency. Born in 1962, and with a degree and doctorate in law as well as an impressive career in German and European government agencies, Dr. Eschweiler is hardly what you would think of as a “digital native.” Yet, in his keynote at DID, he had a message that raised the eyebrows of even the pro-digital audience in attendance.
“Germany has a tendency to emphasize problems over opportunities,” Dr. Eschweiler proclaimed, and “one should look more at the American approach, be more trusting towards new technologies – even those one does not understand fully – and not always focus exclusively on problems of data privacy and security.” Wow.
The next day, when spending an evening at Oktoberfest with veteran German business partners, they reminded me — again — why Germany takes data privacy so seriously. The Nazi regime and their East German successors, most notoriously the Stasi, used mass surveillance for abhorrent purposes. In fact, as masterfully explained by former Department of Homeland Security deputy assistant secretary Paul Rosenzweig, the Nazis operated one of the most sophisticated data collection and analysis systems of the time with chilling consequences. After this, trust does not come easy.
The less restrictive American approach to data privacy remains highly suspect in Germany. Unlike Germany, where the general stance toward data processing is verboten (forbidden), and any form of data handling is tightly regulated by the Federal Data Protection Act, the United States, in a decidedly hands-off approach, generally allows for electronic processing of personal information. Tighter rules only exist for sensitive data such as health information and credit card numbers. Thus, in the US, individuals are usually not protected unless they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in a particular situation.
Reasonableness, not surprisingly, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Europeans beyond Germany remain suspicious of the US approach; this has most recently led to the collapse of the Safe Harbor regime which had provided a legal basis for US storage of EU personal data under certain conditions.
Thus Germany and the US find themselves at the extreme ends of the (democratic) data privacy spectrum – not considering for the moment authoritarian approaches like China and others. The upshot is, of course, that the digital economy in Germany is lagging on the one hand, and American firms find it frustrating to sell their solutions in Europe and Germany on the other.
Enter Canada. Unlike the United States, Canada does have a federal data protection act (called PIPEDA) and it does pass European muster. In fact, the EU Commission has ruled that PIPEDA provides “adequate” protection, and Canadian storage of European personal data is allowed (without any construct like Safe Harbour).
But Canada’s privacy act also calls for a much more pragmatic approach allowing for data handling practices that are in step with modern technology and further development of the digital economy. To Canadians this is no surprise. The country has a long history of making compromise work, pushing for progress while preserving core values, and being accepted as an honest and even-handed broker in international affairs.
So our message to Dr. Eschweiler and our German friends would be this: Yes, we need to look more at opportunities than problems, and yes, the United States is the global leader in the “digital transformation.” However, for those who at the same time cherish robust data privacy, the Canadian approach of pragmatism, balance, and common sense might just be what the world (and Germany) needs to move forward.
Dirk is EVP and board member at Geotab Inc. and, not surprisingly, Canadian.