bluedesign - Fotolia

EU privacy watchdog to set up ethics advisory group

The EU data protection supervisor plans to encourage a discussion on the ethics of future technologies to prevent individuals being reduced to mere data subjects

The independent European data protection supervisor (EDPS) is to set up an external ethics advisory group to address concerns over surveillance technologies.

The move was announced by EDPS head Giovanni Buttarelli in a New Year’s message that calls for “inclusive, Europe-wide and global” co-operation on this issue.

“Balancing data collection and privacy rights will take a collective effort to design governance and support systems for the digital civil society, whether it’s to combat terrorism, crime or for commercial purposes,” he said.

In an opinion piece published in December 2015, Buttarelli expressed concern that while surveillance technologies can be used legitimately by law enforcement authorities, they can also be used to circumvent security measures in electronic communications and data processing.

He called for a co-ordinated approach to deal with the threat posed by such technologies to privacy and recommended a review and bolstering of existing European Union (EU) standards for the protection of human rights.

Buttarelli also recommended the introduction of laws to govern the use and dissemination of surveillance and interception tools and services, the development of consistent and more effective policies regarding the export of intrusive technologies, and investing in initiatives aimed at ensuring internet security and privacy by design.

“As we begin 2016, I intend to encourage a discussion on the ethical dimension of future technologies to prevent individuals being reduced to mere data subjects,” he said in his New Year’s message.

Digital ethics

Outlining his plans for an ethics advisory group, Buttarelli said the group will “advise on a new digital ethics that allows the EU to realise the benefits of technology for society, whether for security or economic reasons, in ways that reinforce the rights and freedoms of individuals while retaining the value of human dignity”.  

Buttarelli said that as the understanding that dignity is important spreads, people will want more opportunities to protect their privacy.

“But we also need to be clear about exchanging personal data for incentives, whether those incentives relate to increased security or consumer benefits,” he said.

According to Buttarelli, the internet has evolved such that the tracking of people’s behaviour has become routine for many intelligence agencies and an essential revenue stream for some of the most successful companies.

“But just because a practice is legal, does not mean that it is wise or just. That is why I am calling for a critical assessment and the search for workable alternatives,” he said.

Buttarelli said he encourages the EU to explore whether targeting resources and efforts on known suspects would be more effective than the mass surveillance and data collection of the population at large.

“It is neither necessary nor proportionate that the many should pay for the crimes of the few,” he said.

Big data and privacy

The EDPS, said Buttarelli, plans to stimulate an informed discussion with policy makers and other experts to bring into focus the challenges of big data to the rights of privacy and data protection.

“I encourage companies and other organisations that invest in finding innovative ways to use our personal data to use the same innovative mind-set when implementing data protection law,” he said.

He called for the challenges to security and fundamental rights to be dealt with in a more “rational and dignified” way and for the EU to lead by example.

“We can invite the rest of the world to join us in our endeavours since we all want to protect our values and ways of life. We’re all in this together, a world community.”

Read more about surveillance

Read more on Privacy and data protection