State data protection agency warns against automated online profiling


Thuringia’s highest data protection officer, Lutz Hasse, warns against the uncontrolled automated creation of online profiles, for example based on data from individuals in social networks such as Facebook. He would like the authorities to have more leverage. “I have in mind that there is an obligation to report if such profiles are formed,” said Hasse in an interview with the German press agency. If there was such an obligation, he could check with his authority whether these profiles were created legally, should a Thuringian company offer something like this.

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Hasse describes the basic problem of creating a profile like this: Using, for example, Facebook likes, algorithms could be used to create profiles of individual users. In these profiles, supposed knowledge about the users then flow together. “With ten Facebook likes, the algorithm knows someone better than, say, the work colleagues of the person concerned, and with 250 Facebook likes, the algorithm knows someone better than a spouse does,” says Hasse.

These profiles, which can contain information about origin, sexual orientation and character traits, could be used in many ways – by banks for lending purposes and employers, for example, but also by political parties. The latter in particular played a role in the last US election campaign. The company Cambridge Analytica, which later worked for the election campaign team of US President Donald Trump, is said to have processed Facebook data into such profiles.

“The profiles can also be used for individualized election advertising,” said Hasse. In his opinion, this could lead to individual voters being manipulated in their decisions. Hasse is not yet aware of any similar programs that deeply affect fundamental data protection law with regard to the upcoming state and federal elections. But he assumes that the potential of such data sets for individual voters is also being dealt with in this country.

The Federal Government’s Data Ethics Commission and the Federal Association of Consumer Centers have also referred to the Problem of automated profiling made aware.

“One of the worst things about these profiles, however, is that the individual does not know anything about their existence; you don’t know who created them, what is in them – and whether the content is correct at all,” criticizes Hasse and therefore calls for mandatory reporting.


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