Datensparsamkeit—Being stingy with data

The German approach to privacy in technology

German is known for having a lot of long, unique words that describe things that simply have no description in other languages. In this article I want to talk about a word that I heard recently and its broader context in the different approach that Germans and Americans have to technology. The word is “Datensparsamkeit”, and it literally translates to “data stinginess”. Specifically, it refers to the principle of developing technology in a way that as little data as possible is shared with the manufacturer or third parties. In a way, it means sharing data only on a “need to know” basis.

I first heard this word on a German technology podcast. Having left my native Germany in 2011, and having worked in the technology industry in the US for a couple of years, this notion struck me and shone a light on some of the cultural differences and the way that technology is approached that I had almost forgotten. A word like Datensparsamkeit does not exist in English, and I certainly haven’t heard anything like it discussed in the technology media. Of course, there are discussions about surveillance, privacy, and whether the user is the product on platforms like Facebook, but these happen more as a function of society observing technological progress that is happening rather than as an introspection within the technology community itself.

One of the reasons behind this is that Germans are possibly the most privacy conscious people in the world. A history of multiple totalitarian governments that were watching every step and punishing every misstep made that an ingrained part of the German personality. In 1983, the German constitutional court of justice severely limited the amount of information the government was allowed to collect as part of the census, and the German state privacy officers are independent watchdogs that can sue companies (and have done so) for fines if they break any of the strict privacy regulations. This urge for privacy is not just regulatory, though: In US cities, you can regularly see people walking through the streets and talking on their phones about their most private lives, unfussed by the presence of strangers around. In Germany, that is unthinkable — your private life does not belong in the public space. This is also corroborated by social media usage: Germany has the lowest usage of Facebook among the major European countries, and is — interestingly — the only one in which college-educated people use Facebook less than those without a degree. Privacy as this strong part of German identity is certainly one of the differences that lead to the existence of the word Datensparsamkeit.

Another, somewhat less obvious factor is how technology is perceived on a very fundamental level. In my experience, within the US technology world (certainly within Silicon Valley), technology is first and foremost seen through the lens of possibility. Machine learning, VR/AR, the sharing economy, big data, biotech, etc. — all of these open up worlds of new possibilities that are waiting to be explored. Move fast and break things! Google, Facebook, Uber, and AirBnB are only a few of the examples that were only made possible by this attitude. Of course, all of these need scrutiny, and there is a period of adjustment in which the framework needs to be found in which new, disruptive services can exist. The driving force behind any of these was the sense of possibility, though.

In Germany, the more prevalent approach to technology, even within the technology world itself, is that of assessing and mitigating risks. Of course, possibility and risk mitigation are not mutually exclusive, but in German culture, the factor of risk aversion tends to outweighs that of possibility. In the technology world, this combines with the privacy consciousness to form the concept of Datensparsamkeit. Since the risks of personal data getting into the wrong hands is a pretty real one in a world of mounting cyber risks, the best way to mitigate that risk is limiting sharing — that argument is of course sound.

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My experience from within a technology company, however, has shown me the value of data collection beyond the clear “need to know”. In my perspective, data collection can make the difference between a successful business and one that falters, or between the “next Google” and a company that gets by, but never makes the news. The argument that I want to make is not that data can be monetized through ads — a lot of products that are paid for by the customer don’t need that. What I am talking about is user and customer insight. Within the product development division of a technology company, you can be pretty far removed from how your product is actually used. Of course, you try to talk to users and customers as much as you can, but what that tells you, a lot of the time, is just that no two users use your product the same way. Beyond your intuition, usage data is by far the most valuable input to really improve your product for all users. And very often, the decisions you take are based on whatever data you have available at the time — so having more data available makes the decisions more informed, and therefore more likely to lead to the desired outcomes. Since you don’t know in advance what decisions you will need to make in the future, it is very hard to limit what information you collect without slowing down future decisions.

This, to me, is the major drawback of following the principle of Datensparsamkeit too religiously — as a society, you limit the speed or the accuracy with which you can innovate, and those that don’t subscribe to Datensparsamkeit, like the tech companies in Silicon Valley, will be able to run faster and determine the technology landscape of tomorrow.