A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof. Andrea Renda about COVID-19 & GDPR

We speak with Andrea Renda, professor of Digital Innovation at the College of Europe in Bruges (Belgium). He is a Senior Research Fellow and Head of the CEPS Unit on Global Governance, Regulation, Innovation and the Digital Economy (GRID).

How do you evaluate the current increased use of data (especially in non-EU countries) and its effectiveness in “stopping” the virus?

ESMH scientist Andrea RendaAndrea Renda: Use of geolocation data to enforce social distancing is possible but relatively inaccurate especially outside densely populated areas. Governments can use such information to locate violations of social distancing rules. There is no pseudonymisation in these cases: the purpose is law enforcement, thereby the information is used to track people’s movement and enforce the social distancing rules. However, due to the inaccuracy of the geolocational data one can only use this information as evidence to be confirmed through other means, either human or technological (e.g. cameras).

Do you see these measures justified – particularly bearing in mind our European identity and history?

Andrea Renda: GDPR allows for such a temporary collection of data without the explicit consent of data subjects. But going beyond this, for example asking employers to track employees, or using facial recognition to avoid that certain people break out of containment zones, would amount to a disproportionate and untrustworthy use of technology, and a violation of fundamental rights, however temporary.

Would you say that monitoring citizens’ data is appropriate, regardless of GDPR? Or are we adapting ourselves already to the “surveillance-style” way of life, especially in contrast to how non-European countries deal with citizens’ data (see China, South Korea, Israel)?

Andrea Renda: I understand the concerns of those that believe that this would open the door to relaxing privacy standards also in the post-emergency period, but then the solution is simply to be careful: the use of geolocational data to track social movements should never become the rule, especially if coupled with law enforcement or any other form of mass surveillance. The work of the High Level Expert Group on AI, as well as the White Paper on AI, are very solid bases for a proportionate and sustainable use of technology once things will have come back to normal. For now, we are at war, and certain extreme, temporary measures may be needed.

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