Tag Archives: privacy and pandemics

Why data protection law is uniquely equipped to let us fight a pandemic with personal data

Image by ar130405 from Pixabay

Data protection law is different than “privacy”. We, data protection lawyers, have been complacent recently and have failed to clarify this loud and clear for the general public. Perhaps happy to finally see this field of law taking the front stage of public debate through the GDPR, we have not stopped anyone from saying that the GDPR is a privacy law.

The truth is, the GDPR is a “data protection” law (it stands for the General “Data Protection” Regulation). And this makes a world of difference these days, when governments, individuals, companies, public health authorities are looking at the collection of personal data and digital tracking of people as a potential effective way to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The GDPR is the culmination of about half a century of legislative developments in Europe, which saw data protection evolve from a preoccupation of regional laws, to national laws, to EU laws, to a fundamental right in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. A fundamental right (Article 8) which is provided for distinctly than the fundamental right to respect for private and family life (Article 7). What a wonderous distinction!

The right to the protection of personal data has been conceived particularly to support societies in facing the reality of massive automation of systems fed with data about individuals. At the very beginning, the introduction of computerized databases in public administration pushed for the necessity of adopting detailed safeguards that would ensure the rights of individuals are not breached by the collection and use of their data.  

In the following decades, waves of development added layers to those safeguards and shaped data protection law as we know it today, layers such as the need for a justification to collect and use personal data; fair information principles like purpose limitation and data minimization; transparency and fairness; control of data subjects over their own data through specific rights like access, correction and deletion; the need of having a dedicated, independent supervisory authority to explain and enforce data protection law; accountability of whomever is responsible for the collection and use of personal data.

The right to data protection is procedural in nature. It does have a flavor of substantial protection, which will certainly grow in importance and will likely be developed in the age of AI and Machine Learning – in particular I am thinking of fairness, but at its core the right to data protection remains procedural. Data protection sets up specific measures or safeguards that must be implemented to reach its goal, in relation to personal data being collected and used.

Importantly, the goal of data protection is to ensure that information relating to individuals are collected and used in such a way that all their other fundamental rights are protected. This includes freedom of speech, the right to private life/privacy, the right to life, the right to security, the right to non-discrimination and so on. Even though I have not seen this spelled out anywhere, I believe it has also been developed to support the rule of law.

This is why data protection is uniquely equipped to let us fight the pandemic using personal data. It has literally been conceived and developed to allow the use of personal data by automated systems in a way that guarantees the rule of law and the respect of all fundamental rights. This might be the golden hour for data protection.

That is, if its imperatives are being applied to any technological or digital responses to the COVID-19 pandemic relying on personal data:

  • The dataflow proposed must be clear, including all the categories of data that will be collected and used.
  • The purpose(s) must be clear, specific, granular, well-defined.
  • Have a lawful ground for processing in place.
  • Building any solution that necessitates personal data must be done by taking into account from the outset data protection requirements (data protection by design).
  • The web of responsibility must be clear (who are the controllers and the processors?).
  • Personal data must not be shared, or given access to, beyond the defined web of responsibility (for example, through controller-processor agreements).
  • There must be transparency in an intelligible way for the individuals whose personal data are collected.
  • The necessity of collecting any of the personal data items must be assessed (can the project do without some of them and achieve the same purpose?).
  • All personal data must be accurate.
  • Ensure that individuals have a way to obtain access to their own data and to ask for correction, erasure if it is justified (as well as for the other rights they have).
  • Ensure the security of data.
  • The personal data collected must be retained only for as long as it is necessary to achieve the purpose (afterwards, it must be deleted; anonymization may be accepted as an alternative to deletion, but there is an ongoing debate about this).
  • Data Protection Impact Assessments (even if loose) should be conducted and then engaging with supervisory authorities to discuss the risks identified which cannot be mitigated could be helpful (and may even be obligatory under certain circumstances).

Therefore, all the data-based solutions proposed to diminish the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not being proposed and accepted in Europe in spite of the GDPR, as media has been portraying it. It is almost as if data protection has been developing in the past half a century to give us the right instruments to be able to face this challenge and preserve our freedoms and our democracies. I hope we will be smart enough to properly use them.