The non-profit organization I belong to recently put the personal data of about 410,000 people on the internet, linked to interactive maps of where they lived. The data include their full name, date of birth and place of birth, known residential address, and often include their occupations and arrest records, sometimes even information about mental or physical handicaps. It also indicates whether one of their grandparents was Jewish.
How would you feel if someone published your personal information on the internet in the same way? The website described above is based on the personal data of victims of Nazi persecution and is part of a commemoration project. But since much of the personal information is likely to be available on a number of corporate servers that the government could have unlimited access to, what should prevent this data from being misused? Even if the information was never made public, how would your personal information be misused if a right-wing Christian extremist government took over power in the United States? Is it so far-fetched for such exploitation of personal data in a Handmaid & # 39; s Tale future?
The German Nazi government conducted a census on 17 May 1939, which included a special "supplementary card", in which everyone had to indicate whether each of their four grandparents was Jewish or not. In the 1980s a census was held in West Germany that led to a lot of resistance from the left, including massive street demonstrations. Several academic works on the planned census of 1980 were published at that time, in which the thesis was argued that the Nazis abused the 1939 census data to create the deportation lists to send the Jews to concentration camps and their subsequent deaths. The resistance to the 1980 census led to it being postponed from the original 1981 date until it was finally ready in 1987 to meet the criteria set out in a decision by a German Supreme Court of 1983 that the extent to which private data severely restricted, could be used for individuals.
However, later research showed that, although the Nazis eventually abused the 1939 census data, they sent the "additional cards" of people with Jewish grandparents to the local police (ie Gestapo) registration offices throughout Germany. it did not happen until the end of 1941 and 1942. Not only were the deportations already fully operational, but by that time the data on the "additional maps" were largely no longer valid – many Jews had already been deported and most of those that remained were forced to to move to smaller, overcrowded apartments, called & # 39; Jewish homes & # 39 ;.
The census data of 1939 were in any case not necessary to make deportation lists by 1941/1942, because the Jewish communities had been forced by the Gestapo to make card indexes of all known Jewish people. These card indexes – it was a typical Nazi tactic to force the people who persecuted them directly into their own persecution – were usually the basis of the deportation lists. In some cases the Jewish community itself was forced to write the deportation lists and decide who could stay and who stepped in the train.
Today, we do not need the Gestapo to force us to give up our personal information, we voluntarily offer it on social media such as Facebook or major US government contractors for military and intelligence communities such as Google. Many people offer their data to maintain their social presence on the internet or just for convenience. The standard answer to this is often: "I have nothing to hide", but that is based on the assumption of a government that respects personal privacy and does not arrest people on the basis of their political opinions, sexual preferences or lifestyle choices.
If the Nazis had access to personal data in the same way as these corporate conglomerates today, there would probably be very few survivors of persecution of people for their race, political stance, sexual preference or for the fact that they were somehow they were seen as physically or mentally handicapped. Add CCTV video surveillance and facial recognition software to the mix and there would have been almost no survivors. This is not an alternative assumption of reality, Philip K. Dick & # 39; s Man in the high castlehowever. The abuse of data by the NSA has already demonstrated what is possible in so-called constitutional democracy, and the slow shift of the US government to new forms of corruption in the last decades, culminating in the election of Donald Trump 2016 as president, gloomy vision of a future that obscures even the worst fictional visions of dystopia.
One of the biggest problems is that we do not expect or receive any protection from our personal data by default, and even though the EU has already drawn up such laws, as it looks now, you have to take additional steps to get the amount of your data that can be exploited: stop Facebook; reduce with Google as far as possible (ie no e-mail accounts); use browsers such as Epic that do not store your data, automatically delete all cookies and trackers and hide your geolocation with a built-in VPN. But unless the majority of the population takes this step, which is very unlikely, whether laws are put in place to ensure the privacy of personal data as standard rather than with a fair amount of extra effort, then the majority of the population in the position to be commercially exploited and perhaps, depending on how things go in our so-called constitutional democracies, persecuted in ways they can not yet imagine.
I treat Nazi history daily and that does not make it easier to read the daily news. I look through the streets of Berlin, where I live, and the memories of the past are omnipresent at the places where victims of the Nazis once lived, were loved and worked. My distinction between the past, the present and the future is becoming increasingly blurred and the further we let ourselves offer our personal data to institutions whose use of those data is beyond our control and whose abuse of these data seems to increase every day the less this distinction between past, present and future seems to be.
Roderick Miller is an American historian living in Berlin and the chairman of the non-profit Tracing the Past, whose online project Mapping the Lives connects personal biographies of those persecuted by the Nazi regime with interactive street maps.
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