Sophie in ‘t Veld: legislation needed to end covid-19 data sharing

MEP and data privacy advocate Sophie in ‘t Veld explains her concerns over the sharing of personal data to help tackle the covid-19 crisis.

The EDPB recently released guidelines on apps used to tackle the covid-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts on these?

The EDPB guidelines are sensible, and they address some of the issues – but not all of the issues.

I see there are big differences between the member states. I think it’s stupid. By adopting 27 national apps, or even regional apps in some countries, we’re making free movement even more difficult. The whole argument behind these apps is we’ll get our free movement back –  instead they’re making it more difficult. It’s creating all sorts of issues to do with security, to do with data privacy, with equal treatment. Even if apps are going to be voluntary, what if access to certain places like schools, public transports, gyms, your local stores is going to be conditional on you downloading the app? 

And we have to start with the question of what the medical experts really need. What do we need to fight this virus? That’s not very clear. Everybody’s looking at the technicalities of it but it’s not clear what is possible and what is desired, and that should be the first question. 

Do you think this should have been legislated for? 

As I said, if you have 27 different approaches you create new borders. There are millions and millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions who need to cross the border on a regular basis, so what’s the value of such an app if it’s just going to raise new barriers? 

The commission has legislated so many times on collecting and sharing personal data – think of the Data Retention Directive, data retention on passenger name records, banking data. Why not this? 

How do we ensure that these issues aren’t permanent?   

I think it should be laid down in legislation, whether it’s national or European. The EDPB said there should be a sunset clause, but even then the end of the crisis is going to take years. The coronavirus will not be gone by the end of this year. It will be with us for years and years. And then I’m pretty sure that at some point – because this is what always happens – there will be function creep. It’s like a law of nature. Once you have apps like these, they’re not going to go away. Someone will come up with another, and convince people it’s a really good idea. 

Do you feel there’s a way we might avoid that or stave it off?

Not really. What we need to do, therefore, is make sure that when these apps are introduced they are decentralised, voluntary – you cannot be negatively affected if you don’t have the app – and there must be a sunset clause for the whole programme. If we can at least introduce all the necessary safeguards and restrictions then we can at least offset the impact of the non-temporary nature. 

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’ve listed most of the important issues. I think we need to be focusing very much now on a single European response. My group has called for a debate in May with a resolution so that Parliament can actually take a position. That’s very important for us. I hear that the Socialists are a bit reticent, bit hesitant, but I think they will see that it’s an important topic and I also think it’s important for us to respond to what’s being done at the national level.


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