Projecting our future: A privacy carol

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

Snowflakes are descending from the sky, children are playing outside. It is cold today, and I must remind my daughters to grab their gloves and hats, and their masks, of course. I am dreaming of this period of year as a time when we can reunite with our families and loved ones, but all of my attempts clash with reality. Needless to say, this period of year is far from what it used to be.

No snow and 10°C above zero in Brussels and in my hometown Gdansk … global warming sad

Never in my life would I have predicted that my first year as European Data Protection Supervisor would take place in these extraordinary circumstances. COVID-19 is the worst global health crisis witnessed in the last 100 years; our civilisation is struggling to preserve unity, solidarity, hope and courage.

The pandemic has served as a magnifying glass for global trends that pervade our societies: wealth distribution inequalities, exploitation of the most vulnerable, discrimination and social justice outrage. Much of it was predictable, but it is not a reason to lower our guard.

The pandemic risks being the perfect occasion for some to exploit the most sensitive attributes of human beings, health data. We voiced our concerns at the beginning of the year on how corporate entities were appropriating health data for purposes covered by business secrecy. Pandora's box is now open, with digital behemoths conquering the almost unexplored and virgin world of health data markets - until now. In the past year, big tech companies, whose business model is based on the exploitation of personal data, have seen their profits increase while economies worldwide were severely shrinking.

We all have high hopes that the pandemic will disappear; the EU and the Member States are planning the biggest large-scale vaccination process ever made for our people. However, how much of these scars will remain and metastasize?

For data protection practitioners, 2020 will not only be remembered because of COVID-19. In the middle of this crisis, the guardian of EU law warned that not all places in the world are safe for individuals’ personal data to travel, even when the world needs unity and convergence of standards.  While there is much hope for a better dialogue with the other side of the Atlantic, great scrutiny will be required to avoid repeating past mistakes.

It has also been the year of European discussions on artificial intelligence, data governance and the future of a digital services regulation. Despite the crisis, we need to develop and find answers for old and new challenges. Because of the crisis, we need to do this more efficiently and more reasonably. 

More than digital sovereignty, I would like to refer to the EU’s digital values leadership in 2021. The digital values leadership is at the core of the EU’s ambition to not only be strategically autonomous in digital-driven choices, but also to inspire and promote the same values around the globe.

I am hopeful about 2021.

Next year – which starts with the 40th anniversary of Convention 108 on January 28th – shall mark a time when national supervisory authorities of the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) will engage in fully coordinated, or even joint, enforcement actions under the GDPR and Law Enforcement Directive. We shall not spoil the great opportunity of the GDPR. We need to act in unison across the EU to protect human beings and ensure fairness in our societies.

Next year, we shall see the projects aimed at regulating digital services and digital markets brought forward, with the intention to tackle the increasing risks for fundamental rights and other societal harms in the digital sphere, and to ensure that digital markets are not the hostages of a few gatekeepers. 2021 shall be the year when the e-Privacy Regulation is finalised after being in deadlock for too long.

Regulators must act with the bravery and courage that these times require, as our choices of today will determine the world of tomorrow. As the independent EU institution for data protection, we are committed to not lose sight of these challenges.

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that it is cold today. Well, it is not, in reality. Winter is less winter every year. Climate change is a dramatic threat, which needs to be prioritised. AI and blockchain technologies, illegal tracking and profiling of individuals, generate an increasing amount of dangerous waste, due to short-lived connected goods, combined with exponential carbon footprint emissions. Data minimization and responsible data processing will help counteract these damaging trends. There should be a competition on the most beneficial ways to use data, not on who can collect the most.

I would like to wish everyone who works in the field of privacy and data protection, and those who defend the digital rights and freedoms of individuals, a 2021 of health and well-being, bravery and renewed determination.

Dear Friends, Merry Christmas to all of you. Happy New Year, even if the party on New Year’s Eve will be … strange.