As the lead negotiator for the European Parliament on data protection, Jan Albrecht’s voice carries far.
Data protection has turned into a mine field on the legislative landscape. Albrecht's position is clear and seemingly unbending.
Edward Snowden is one of Jan Philipp Albrecht’s folk heroes. The Paris attacks didn’t change his mind, but the terrorists made his job harder.
As the lead negotiator for the European Parliament on the General Data Protection Regulation, the German Green is the driving force behind a law that will harmonize data protection rules across Europe.
The aim is to give people more power over what happens with their data, ranging from financial information to family photos, ensuring it is only processed, stored or sold with their consent. The law would also make it easier for people to switch services, like cloud photo storage, by making data more portable. Finally, companies could be fined for failure to comply or to notify authorities when breached.
The legislation is expected to be finalized by the end of December, but the tenor of the debate shifted after the Paris attacks coupled with the level-4 terror threat in Brussels. A growing number of political leaders are listening to frightened voters who are willing to sacrifice more privacy in order to feel more secure.
“[Snowden] didn’t reveal any intelligence about terrorist investigations but just information about the unlawful extent of intelligence agencies activities.”
“The approach on encryption cannot be a balanced one,” Albrecht, vice chair of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee, told his peers after the attacks. “Either you are in favor of encrypted communication or you are against.”
The former anti-nuclear activist still encrypts his own emails. He argues citizens and businesses should too in order to protect their privacy and shield themselves from unwanted surveillance.
Accusations that Snowden’s revelations helped terrorists evade detection are “ridiculous,” he said.
“Those criminals, who are trained by terrorist organizations, used protected communications already before Snowden,” Albrecht said in an interview. “Besides, he didn’t reveal any intelligence about terrorist investigations but just information about the unlawful extent of intelligence agencies activities.”
From Pershings to data
A crisis can define a political career. Data protection has turned into a mine field on the legislative landscape. Albrecht’s position is clear and seemingly unbending.
“It is now not about re-balancing security and privacy but about making security more targeted and effective. None of the mass surveillance measures have helped to identify these threats,” he said. “We have to re-focus on known radicals rather than collecting more irrelevant data about completely innocent persons.”
Albrecht walked onto the European Parliament stage just six years ago, and at 26 was half the average age of his peers. He still wears jeans and T-shirts and answers his own emails. But has learned to navigate the political terrain and build a political profile.
“When Albrecht first arrived, he was a young Greens activist, and he has developed into a real politician, in the positive sense,” said Liberal MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, who works alongside Albrecht in the LIBE committee.
“He has created a very strong brand: ‘human rights in the digital age.’ In politics today, you need to be specialized, you need to try to be known for something.” — Labour MEP Claude Moraes.
The man himself acknowledged, “At the beginning, I did more in the straight, offensive way, and I learned to not only be that way. It’s much psychology, strategy and sometimes even tactics.”
Born in Wolfenbüttel, a small town in Lower Saxony best known for the Mast-Jägermeister liquor company, Albrecht grew up in a political family. His parents took the 1-year-old baby to demonstrations against the NATO deployment of Pershing II rockets in West Germany.
Schoolmates fueled his activism. He joined the Greens at 16 and campaigned for peace during U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The troubled Asse II mine, where radioactive caesium-137, plutonium and strontium leaked, also became a protest point.
“Anti-nuclear activism and data protection are not so far from each other,” Albrecht reflected. Both raise “the question of the impact assessment when getting into new technology and the implications of technology on society.”
After graduation, he attended law school in Bremen, Berlin and Brussels before specializing in information and communications technology law in Hanover, Germany and Oslo.
In Bremen, he met Manuel Sarrazin, a German Greens federal MP, who recalled Albrecht as an “awake student, participating, reading the stuff … [but also] a party guy — sometimes a bit too much. I have seen him pogo dancing. Parties and youth organizations are a good combination.”
By 2006, Albrecht had become the federal spokesperson of the Young Greens, a position he held until 2008.
“He became very visible because he was a real expert on many issues,” said Rebecca Harms, a fellow German Greens MEP.
She suggested he run for leader of the Green party in Lower Saxony, but he had his sights on Brussels.
“For what I want to do and what I want to change, the best place to be is here in the European Parliament,” said Albrecht.
As Parliament’s rapporteur for the data protection regulation, Albrecht managed to forge a broad consensus in March 2014, despite the record 4,000 amendments filed. When the vote came, 621 members were in favor of the text he presented, 10 were against and 22 abstained.
Pendulum swings back
Albrecht concedes Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance, just a few months earlier, helped sway many votes for stricter protections.
Post-Paris, the pendulum has swung back. And that could influence European debates on a number of laws in the pipeline, including the Passenger Name Record for travelers on international flights and the Umbrella Agreement that sets out data protection terms for transfers between EU and U.S. law enforcement.
But Albrecht stands firm: “Parliamentarians need to assure the rule of law still applies. Otherwise there would be no difference anymore between our societies and those who don’t care about these values.”
Some at the Commission wondered how such an important piece of legislation could land in the hands of a relative novice of a minority group, said Pauline Rouch, a former cabinet member of then-Commission Vice-President for Justice Viviane Reding. (Reding too was in charge of the Data Protection Regulation at the time, on behalf of the Commission)
“He adapted to the ecosystem, like any animal would,” Rouch added.
Albrecht said being underestimated helped him be successful. Yet, he admitted he had to adjust and soften his approach.
While Albrecht has been willing to compromise with opposing political groups, he digs in with the tech industry.
“He is not very interested in hearing something that is not of the same ideology,” said a former tech lobbyist who requested anonymity to protect his current position.
Albrecht swept aside such assertions with, “I try to really get [the lobbyist’s] minds into a different direction instead of copy-pasting what they say and leaving them in the world they are in.”
His colleagues describe him as knowledgeable, strong on substance and at ease with technical audiences.
“He has created a very strong brand: ‘human rights in the digital age.’ In politics today, you need to be specialized, you need to try to be known for something. He has observed that maxim,” said Labour MEP Claude Moraes, chair of the LIBE committee and Albrecht’s boss on paper. “He is definitely one of Parliament’s strong players.”
Albrecht seems eager to show that he’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is one of them.
“Politicians have a lot of weaknesses. After a certain time in politics they tend to be quite uncreative,” he said.
Max Schrems, the young Austrian who helped take down the U.S.-EU safe harbor data agreement, said, “I see him as a political citizen who holds an office in the Parliament.”
It’s unclear how long Albrecht will remain in office. “If you are young,” he said, “you should have different plans in your life.”
But the data protection regulation will influence the social, economic and legal future of Europe for years to come.