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Data collection pervades our lives every day and more and more

Posted by Nick Prag at 30 January 2014, 14:20 CET |
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Were you out celebrating Data Protection Day on Tuesday? Probably not. Maybe you shouldn't be. The issue of data protection pervades our lives every day and more and more.

When the EU brought in the current Data Protection Directive in 1995, the internet was just coming onto the horizon. I had just started work as senior editor at Europe Online in Luxembourg, while a Mr Mark Zuckerberg was just 11.

Mobile apps hadn't been invented, and a social network meant a coffee morning in the local church hall.

Now the buzz-words include cloud computing and smart cities. Hundreds of millions of Europeans use and enjoy the latest technologies to entertain, to connect online and to share their data.
But those technologies are only freely available because of the collection and interchange of personal data.

Every free service we use online collects some information from us, the consumer, often without our conscious agreement. "We need to be more critical", says Peter Hustinx, the European data protection supervisor. 

When people think of privacy issues they also think of the recent revelations from NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. This is a serious issue, which has served as a wake-up call to many - many legislators who may not have realised the seriousness of the issues they were debating, and many consumers who are finding out about a darker side of the digital environment they use every day, such as smartphones, laptops and tablets.

The widespread collection and use and sometimes misuse of data should not come as too much of a surprise. It does not take too much working out to realise that as we make more and more use of the free online services that are becoming available, our data is being read, digested and put to commercial use many times over.

It may be that the collection and deciphering of trillions of megabytes of information by the machines that snoop on our data is a price we need to pay for being protected against terrorist threats to our everyday life.

For the consumer, however, a new legal framework is becoming more and more necessary, and it is clear this needs to bring stronger rights, obligations, supervision and enforcement which will involve many of the big players in the digital world, the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google. All will need to change the way they do things.

Two years ago, the European Commission proposed a major reform of EU data protection rules, stating its main main purpose as being to make them fit for the 21st century.

Since then, there has been limited progress, and in October last year, the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs voted by a large majority to back the Commission's proposals.

However, despite numerous discussions in Council on the proposals, there has as yet been no agreement by Justice and Home Affairs Ministers on a mandate to start negotiations with the European Parliament.

Data mining and analysis does many good things. It is helping scientific researchers in all kinds of fields, with the potential to help develop new drugs and to save lives. In smart cities, it can manage better urban transport so you don't get caught in so many traffic jams. And so it goes on. The opportunities for using data have never been more apparent.

Nor however has the importance of consumers being protected against the misuse of their own data.

Data protection issues are ever present in people's lives – at work, in their dealings with public authorities, in the field of health, and when they buy goods or services or travel and when they surf the internet.
Data Protection Day is about giving everyone help in understanding what personal data is collected and processed and why, and what our rights are with respect to this processing.

In a speech on 28 January, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding underlined the fact that data protection is a fundamental right. She sees agreement on the data protection reform proposed by the Commission in 2012 as vital to efforts to boost confidence and protection, and make the rules relevant in a modern, technological era.

The connected, data-rich services of the future have great potential to change lives. But the rewards should be available for consumers as well as the big digital companies. Opting out is no longer an option, so, as Mrs Reding said, we need to get serious on data protection.

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Nick Prag

Nick Prag

Nick Prag is founder and managing editor of Prior to EUbusiness, he was senior editor at Europe Online SA in Luxembourg, where he played a major part in the launch of Europe Online International.