Electronic ethics: rights and freedoms in a digital future

16 Nov 2015

With technological advancement comes increasing collection and processing of personal data, prompting ethical questions for EU bodies. Image via pogonici/Shutterstock

Mason Hayes & Curran dissects the recent opinion from the European Data Protection Supervisor on digital ethics, data protection and emerging technology.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) recently published an opinion entitled Towards a new digital ethics – Data, dignity and technology. The opinion focuses on the challenges that new and evolving technologies pose to data protection. In particular, the EDPS highlights the need for a simple but future-proof approach to law-making in the area of data protection.

Given the ongoing negotiations around the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the EDPS hopes its opinion might guide lawmakers in developing the next generation of data protection laws.

What is the EDPS?

The EDPS is an independent institution of the EU. Together with the European Commission and national data protection authorities, it makes up part of the Article 29 Working Party.

In general, the EDPS is responsible for ensuring that people’s fundamental rights and freedoms – in particular, their right to privacy – are respected by EU institutions and bodies in respect of the processing of personal data.

It is also tasked with advising EU institutions and bodies on all matters concerning the processing of personal data. Earlier this year, the EDPS published a five-year strategy.

What is the EDPS opinion about?

The opinion addresses the challenge to data protection of ‘going digital’. This is the third objective of the EDPS strategy, “customising existing data protection principles to fit the global digital arena”.

The opinion is consistent with the Article 29 Working Party’s approach to the data protection aspects of the use of new technologies, such as the internet of things (IoT).

The opinion examines the trends, opportunities and challenges arising from the increasing collection and processing of personal data. In particular, it specifically highlights the trends that, in the EDPS’s view, “raise the most important ethical and practical questions for the application of data protection principles”.

These include big data, IoT, ambient (or invisible) computing, cloud computing, personal data-dependent business models, drones and autonomous vehicles, as well as trends with a potentially larger, longer-term impact (such as 3D bioprinting and artificial intelligence).

The EDPS proposes that this era of great technological advancement provides the EU with an opportunity to demonstrate how all parties who make up this digital world – from regulators to developers, and designers to ordinary individuals – can cooperate to reinforce rights and to steer, as opposed to block, technological innovation.

Data protection ecosystem

In its opinion, the EDPS outlines four essential elements required to form the data protection ecosystem of the future. These are outlined below.

1. Future-oriented regulation

The EDPS had previously encouraged the EU to develop simpler rules, in the anticipation that these same rules would remain relevant for the next generation. The EDPS stresses the importance of the enforcement role of data protection authorities together with the need for greater coherence among regulators. This is particularly relevant given the ever-decreasing cost of collecting and storing data.

2. Accountable controllers

The EDPS reiterates the principle that personal data should be processed only in ways compatible with the specific purpose or purposes for which it was collected. It states that such limitations are essential to respecting individuals’ legitimate expectations. The EDPS calls on data controllers to be more dynamic and proactive in their handling of personal information.

3. Privacy-conscious engineering

The EDPS believes that technological design decisions should not dictate societal interactions but should support society’s values and fundamental rights. The EDPS considers that the EU should develop and promote engineering techniques that create data processing technologies that fully respect the individual’s rights and fundamental freedoms.

4. Empowered individuals

Having outlined both the benefits and the challenges of emerging and recent digital trends, the EDPS highlights that citizens also have a role to play in their online choices. The EDPS adds that they have a responsibility to be aware, alert, critical and informed when making choices, both online and offline.

What the future holds

Whether the EU will indeed integrate electronic ethics and make a place for fundamental rights and freedoms in the technologies of the future remains to be seen.

For now, the EDPS hopes to trigger a wider discussion on balancing the integrity of the values of the EU while embracing all the benefits of modern technologies.

In particular, this discussion is likely to arise in the final negotiations of the EU’s new data protection laws, including the GDPR.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

Tech Law is a weekly series brought to you by Irish law firm Mason Hayes & Curran, whose legal tech team advises the world’s top social media organisations and emerging start-ups. Check out www.mhc.ie for more.

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Personal digital data image by pogonici via Shutterstock