Ulrich Kelber can be very quick. If you ask him whether it’s frustrating that the data protection officer is perceived as a blocker, he changes the narrative focus from the idea of a hard blocker to that of a so-called drag shoe before you can finish asking. Kelber explains that railroads use drag shoes to keep trains from rolling away. “To prevent accidents, to put it bluntly. To keep things where they belong.” And that’s a bit of his job description, too.
Ulrich Kelber, born in 1968, has been the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information since January 2019. In the 1990s, Kelber, who has a degree in computer science, was a consultant for an IT company. From 2000, he sat in the Bundestag for the SPD for 18 years and won his direct mandate even when the Social Democrats were weakening, and most residents in his constituency of Bonn preferred to give their second vote to the CDU.
“The very worst thing is if we’re right“
Kelber would be happy, he says, to be involved more often and earlier in the legislative process so things could be done differently. “In many places, that’s possible.” He is annoyed that he often receives draft legislation just before cabinet meetings and has no time to incorporate his comments. Sometimes he still has time to warn that something might be unconstitutional or contrary to European law. “The very worst thing is when we are right, and then three or four years later, a digitization project is stopped by the Constitutional Court or the Federal Supreme Court. Then a lot of time and millions of euros have been wasted, even though there would have been alternatives.”
In other places, the path to the goal must be considered. “If we strengthen pseudonymization and anonymization technologies, more data processing of personal data is possible. If we promoted decentralized AI, federated AI, distributed learning, AI would not only be possible but even possible with data that you cannot achieve at all with centralized data collection methods, i.e., the famous data lakes. That would be the European way.” Kelber sees himself as a protector of citizens’ freedoms: “In other areas, some have confused spying and digitizing with each other. And we don’t accept that.”
“Interventions by the state must be proportionate”
Kelber believes that the responsibility for establishing a legally secure basis for transatlantic data transfer lies first and foremost with the Americans. He would prefer a regulation that would enable a free flow of data between all democratically governed countries. “For this to happen, however, there must be no second-class rights for European citizens; state intervention must be proportionate, and there must be rights to defend oneself.”
In his private life, Kelber does not use Whatsapp, Instagram, Tiktok, or Android. He uses Twitter intensively and has already been criticized for it. His five children can do as they please, but they are no longer allowed to synchronize with all their devices. He spends his free time with the Bonn Capitals baseball team as a “very active fan”. There, he is not a drag, but rather a draught horse – with a cowbell on the sidelines. Gabriel Bub