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Digital risk in the modern society


The issue of privacy and the surveillance of digital communications has been a key topic of concern across Europe, particularly in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s disclosures on the surveillance activities conducted by the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA). In an interview with EUROPP’s editor Stuart Brown, Ulrich Beck discusses his view of digital risk, and the dangers posed by the development of a global digital ‘empire’ in which it becomes possible to monitor the lives of individuals beyond traditional social and territorial units.


One relatively new type of risk that society has to deal with relates to the Internet and digital freedom. How important is this type of risk in modern society?


I think that digital freedom risk is one of the most important risks we face in modern society. I don’t know how it compares to the UK, but this is an extremely topical issue in Germany today. In addition to the types of risk we have previously discussed, digital risk is another chapter in my book World Risk Society. It’s a different one and it tells a different story, but to some extent it has similarities because we cannot understand digital risk in terms of class categories or categories related to nation states.


One of the differences is that digital freedom risk hasn’t resulted in a catastrophe so far. The ‘catastrophe’ in this sense would be perfect global surveillance by global institutions. This is a catastrophe which is not supposed to happen and we really only know about this risk because of Edward Snowden, who made it visible. Digital freedom risk, like other risks, is completely beyond our understanding. It also induces new kinds of inequalities, hierarchies and imperialistic structures which we can’t understand through class categories.

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