The moment you realise the world has changed: re-thinking the EDPS Strategy

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

When we started our work on the Strategy for the five-year mandate of the European Data Protection Supervisor, one of the first issues we discussed was whether it should be either a living document, ready to be changed or adjusted, or a robust, future-proof plan. 

My answer to this question was that our strategy should be adaptable to global game changers. We were confident we had chosen the right, comprehensive methodology. Of course, we maintained some flexibility to be able to cope with entirely unpredictable circumstances. What we had in mind were natural disasters causing unexpected changes in the legislation at both European and national levels. However, we never expected such a tragedy to have occurred so quickly! 

All was set for 19 March. Who would have thought that the streets of so many European capitals would be empty by then? Who would have thought that the external borders of the European Union would be closed, that the Schengen area would literally stop operating, that xenophobia would be on the rise? We could not even imagine that reasonable people would start asking internet and telecom operators to possibly track each and every person in Europe using his or her mobile location data in real time, and to create a diagram representing all physical interactions between people over the last few days. 

Some people praised the EDPS when we published our blogpost on the dangers of facial recognition in public space a few months ago. Other people laughed when we presented the employees emotion-tracking system implemented by one European bank. Many of these people would argue today that those who should be in quarantine should be automatically identified and intercepted in the streets and that each public building should be equipped with infrared sensors, enabling accurate non-contact temperature measurement.

Covid-19 is a game changer. 

Thinking about the EDPS’ strategy for the next five years, we have to look again at our text. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, we know the words will not be the same. We will all be confronted with this game changer in one way or another. And we will all ask ourselves whether we are ready to sacrifice our fundamental rights in order to feel better and to be more secure

I therefore decided to pause and reflect on how the European Data Protection Supervisor – being a great supporter of the European project – can help navigate the process of asking society some basic questions. I am sure we are facing a new stage in the discussion about fundamental rights. In the next few months, we will need to find the time to reflect on the crucial principles that govern our interconnected lives.

Once this discussion is complete, I intend to reveal a strengthened EDPS Strategy for 2020-2024, at the beginning of May.