Every year, on Data Protection Day, we have reflected on crucial past achievements for privacy and data protection. However, I do not intend to look at the past. I rather want to look at what is ahead of us, in 2023 and beyond.
In this historical moment, there is an important need to go back to the roots of privacy and data protection, as fundamental rights and essential components of humans’ innermost dignity.
On the one hand, private companies are using people’s data as their core business, “digital goliaths”, and have therefore acquired an incredible amount of power and information. As a consequence, people have lost any meaningful sort of control on the data collected and used about them. People are helpless in the face of such asymmetry of power, this is the truth.
On the other hand, public governments around the world are increasingly engaging in geopolitical confrontation. Often, in these geopolitical dynamics, “privacy” is either manipulated or breached with covert surveillance. We have seen a prominent example of this with the deployment of the Pegasus spyware.
Moreover, during Covid times, public powers have exponentially accessed data held by private companies, the best example being geo-localisation data. I am deeply concerned by the trend of prolonging this attitude, using emergencies as a justification, or better, as an excuse to maintain access to this sort of data. Along with this, I am of the opinion that public-private partnerships reach an unacceptable extreme when the enforcement powers are outsourced to commercial entities.
Decisions on the use of personal data interfere with the very right of being alive in this world. Decisions on the use of personal data are political in their very nature. Those decisions should be subject to real democratic debate, process and oversight. This is true for how data is used by private and public actors alike.
Have we maybe forgotten that the role of governments is to empower, and not to weaken, the position of individuals? That this need for protection is even more crucial for the vulnerable ones, such as children, minority groups, migrants, those who otherwise risk being left behind and put aside, at the margins of society?
Privacy and data protection are foundations of democracy. Privacy and data protection are foundations of justice. They are foundations of fairness. And so, they must be applied to everyone.
I am proud that the European Union is leading the way in regulating and shaping our future, with relevant law and policy making in Artificial Intelligence, digital economy, political advertising, and data spaces. At the same time, what worries me is the potential dilution of privacy and data protection in these present and future legal acts.
Now, more than ever, we need a new deal for privacy and data protection, a new deal that reincorporates these fundamental rights into the basic pillars sustaining our societies.
Moreover, we need individuals to gain back control. Control is not a mirage, an impossible ambition or a false expectation. Democracies entrust individuals to select their political representatives, despite politics being complex. Similarly, we must create the conditions for individuals to engage in free and meaningful choices in the digital environment. I cannot sympathise with arguments such as “it is too complicated for the user”, as it is the right of a human being we are referring to.
We must visualise, preserve and give new impetus to the original intentions behind privacy and data protection as foundations of democracy, justice and fairness. We must do so in order to face the challenges of today’s society, a society that cannot stop and shall grow stronger, while fully upholding fundamental rights.
I commit to making this my mission for the years to come.
Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the European Data Protection Supervisor