Forget Privacy, Probability is the New Nightmare

Jane Whyatt profiles Viktor Mayer Schönberger

It sounds like a nightmare – ten years’ worth of professional contacts, emails and reports accidentally deleted on a computer. But for Viktor Mayer Schönberger it was a turning point.

“I was completely desperate. I was literally weeping” he says. “I was depressed for about two days, and then life went on. And I never really missed it”

That was in 1999 and prompted the law professor to write Deletethe virtue of forgetting in the Digital Age his manifesto on ‘digital forgetting’.

“As cognitive scientists remind us, our ability to forget goes hand in hand with our ability to generalise and abstract. Too much of a comprehensive digital memory might make it impossible for us to see the forest – we might only see the trees” he says in an interview with Netopia.

Policy makers including German Consumer Affairs Minister ilse Aigner have praised the professor’s advice that data should have a use-by date, and we should actively decide which data to keep rather than accepting the default setting of storing everything. German cryptography professor Michael Backe has made an app based on the Mayer Schönberger principle of the right to be forgotten. Called X-pire and described as a digital rubber (eraser) you can buy it for 24 euros a year and set your own expiry date on all your social network posts.

Yet there are new threats. As Professor of Internet Governance at Oxford University’s Internet institute Professor Mayer Schönberger is researching the ways in which governance overlaps with cyberlaw and will present his findings in February 2014.

VMS’s latest book, co-authored with Kenneth Cukier’ is Big Data – a revolution that will transform how we live, work and think’. In it he warns that soon ‘Algorithms will predict the likelihood that one will get a heart attack (and be denied health insurance) default on a mortgage (and be denied a loan) or commit a crime (and perhaps get arrested in advance). It leads to an ethical consideration of the role of free will versus the dictatorship of data.’ The proliferation of big data – and the tools to mine it – strengthens his earlier argument about the need to set limits on data storage. Now businesses and intelligence agencies have the technical means to trawl through decades worth of online communications, or CCTV footage, or Internet searches with one keystroke. Professor Schönberger argues we no longer need to worry about privacy – it is too late for that. Probability is the new peril.

‘Big data’ was shortlisted for the UK’s Financial Times Business Book of the Year 2013 and he has been gathering prizes ever since he won the high school Physics Olympics in his home state of Salzburg, Austria. At the age of 20 he founded Ikarus software and was voted Top-5 Software Entrepreneur in Austria in 1991 before becoming a law professor at Harvard and a member of the Microsoft Advisory Board. With such a starry CV, you would think he would want to remember it all.

Jane Whyatt