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Eindhoven wants to become a smart society. But how does that work? What’s going on in a society like that? Are there any good examples to learn from? DataStudio Eindhoven explores the transition a city has to go through to actually become such a smart society. Each week, we present a new contribution on E52. This week: Maya Indira Ganesh about data empowerment. Read all the articles here.

Maya Indira Ganesh is one of the programme directors of the Tactical Technology Collective, in short, Tactical Tech, and is the keynote speaker at the conference A City As Smart As Its Citizens, organised by the DATA studio on 24 October, during the Dutch Design Week and the World Design Event.

Tactical Tech is a foundation that conducts practice-oriented research into the social and political role of technology in the lives of citizens. The organisation is based in Berlin but works internationally.

In A City As Smart As Smart As Its Citizens, several speakers discuss the conclusions and lessons to be learned from the DATA studio’s programme. There is a debate with the audience about what the steps to take would be if we would be really serious about developing a smart society. Maya Indira Ganesh does research on digital security and privacy and in the conference, she will discuss how citizens can be data-empowered. Klaas Kuitenbrouwer spoke with her in the run-up to the conference.


“How citizens can be data-empowered? A useful answer to that question starts with defending human rights, protecting us against misuse of data. This amounts to an appeal to the enforcement of the law, which is, in fact, an appeal to the government. But Tactical Tech is very practical-based and we also see the limitations in the role of the state. In the field of digital rights protection, the difficulty often lies precisely in the intertwining of the role of governments with that of (large) companies.

In documents from Africa, for example, Facebook provides access to ‘the internet’ – read: Facebook and affiliated services. However, access to digital media should, of course, be a task for the government. The picture becomes more complicated when decisions about available content are made automatically on the basis of user-datified profiles. What does this mean for democratic processes? What mechanisms are there for holding companies to account, if necessary?

A major role here is played by the protection of privacy, not only against gross abuse but also as a condition for democratic processes, for a greater balance of power. Because there is a huge asymmetry in the power that companies have over data and the power of individual citizens. Encryption can make some difference in this respect, thus preventing all these data traces from developing.

But not if it is picked up as an individual matter because encryption is a team sport. The least secure person is the weak spot of the whole network. Encryption works only when collectives pass to it. But that is only possible on the basis of individual behavioural changes. This is not easy and requires awareness and knowledge and therefore education.

Encryption is vital if you work on politically sensitive issues in countries that do not function democratically, but for other reasons, it may also be very important in our much safer northern European cities. Your online behaviour and the data traces you leave behind directly affect your credit status, for example. Do you have a history in mental health care? That is reflected in your creditworthiness. Whether you are single or married also plays a role. Married is considered more stable. And if a credit institution can buy information about your browser history, and an individual wants to denounce it, which parties have jurisdiction? We all do not yet have a good tailor-made answer to this, and it is important to gain insight into this.

In addition, there are very different issues relating to the online protection of rights, which also require very different tactics. The scope for racist and sexist statements that are now claimed under the term ‘freedom of expression’ calls for new types of legislation. In Germany, this already works well. There are major problems with this in America. The Netherlands is a bit in between, I believe.

More and better education about these issues is essential, and that is exactly what Tactical Tech is doing now in The Glass Room, which will open soon in London. In it, individuals and collectives can learn everything about the impact of their online behaviour and the measures they can take. I will tell you more about it on the 24th.

Another useful tactic, which is not so much a protective tactic as it is a proactive way of promoting new democratic practices, could be called a ‘legal experiment’. A good example is that of the Austrian privacy activist and lawyer Max Schrems. Following a lecture by Facebook’s privacy lawyer Ed Palmieri and appealing to the European right of access, he asked Facebook for all the data that Facebook held about him. In total, more than 1,200 pages of data were involved. He has started legal proceedings against Facebook about breaches of European privacy legislation. These issues were set against the backdrop of Snowden’s revelations, and have had a major impact on the tightening of European privacy rules.

Urban authorities are also well placed to experiment with rules, with local regulations. Barcelona is experimenting with a digital platform for civic participation, in which citizens manage all their data themselves. Amsterdam requires shops to register their sensors in a public register so that everyone can see where data is collected.

When conducting experiments of this kind, when introducing new technologies, or new rules for dealing with technologies, it is important to build in the right checks and balances. Ensure community participation, sufficient technical knowledge, but also legal knowledge, and critical eyes from minority perspectives to prevent implicit standards from being built in blindly.

In principle, the Netherlands has the right circumstances to develop data empowerment practices for and by citizens. There is a large critical mass and a healthy democratic culture. I am therefore also very curious about the discussions with the audience at the 24th.”

Here is the full program of A City As Smart As Its Citizens. Admission is free, but please register for a ticket!