How can policy balance modern-day tech and privacy?
New ePrivacy rules seek to protect users' online privacy without hindering innovation, explains Marju Lauristin.
Marju Lauristin | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual
The notion of privacy in today's society is constantly evolving and new communication technologies have a leading role. New and immersive technologies offer greater efficiency and convenience to users, but they have also raised concerns about the privacy of our online presence, how we behave and communicate.
From mobile phones to OTT services, digital tools generate a great amount of personal data about a user's location, preferences, purchases and personal life. People must feel in control of their own data online and understand the possible consequences of their online activities.
We are left in a difficult position of finding a balance between encouraging innovation and economic opportunity, and curbing the progressive loss of personal privacy. It is important that our legislation keeps up with constantly evolving digital technologies and supports our right to online privacy.
The current ePrivacy directive - which dates back to 2009 - was revised in 2009, but it does not cover newer technologies. The new proposal comes in the form of a regulation rather than a directive, emphasising the need for a uniform application of the law. Without the ePrivacy regulation, the EU privacy and data protection framework is incomplete, as the GDPR does not cover confidentiality of communications.
The new proposal for a regulation covers the right to private life as enshrined in article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Just as we need to respect the right to private life in the physical world, there is no reason why this right should not be extended to the online world.
What users choose to communicate online should remain private and not be scanned, tracked or followed for commercial or any other purposes without our knowledge and consent. New methods of extracting information and tracking users online are now available.
Users' personal information is more at risk of exposure than it has ever been. Highly sensitive information on family life, relationships and medical history needs to be handled with care - unless a person publicly discloses them, they must remain confidential.
We are entering a new environment of digital life where we have technologies that can connect users' mobile devices to their cars and home appliances. Through voice recognition and command, smart home assistants can manage users' daily tasks, recommend locations and even offer fashion advice.
The ePrivacy regulation is not aimed at hampering the impact of such technologies or limiting smart innovations. However, as users are becoming increasingly dependent on these technologies, they should also be made aware of the incurring risks these digital tools have on their privacy.
While the younger generations, with highly developed digital skills and habits of non-stop engagement in online communications, are becoming the core of our modern society, the content and data of their electronic communications are becoming increasingly vulnerable to various privacy risks.
Online users should not only know the purpose for which their data is processed, but also the means by which their data is captured, stored, used and processed. Studies show that the majority of people frequently using electronic communications, are concerned that they are being tracked and that their data is misused.
We need to tackle users' growing worries. Confidentiality should remain an unbreakable fundamental principle of any private communication in whatever technological environment.
The aim of the ePrivacy regulation is to make sure that all existing and emerging communication technologies will be applied by businesses with full respect to the right for privacy and that users will remain in charge of their own data. I believe the key here is to find the right balance between business interests to develop data economy, and users' needs to secure their privacy.
The ePrivacy regulation will challenge industries to develop innovative privacy-friendly communication devices, create software that fits to the new rules, and it will also help consumers to be in control of their own lives.
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