Data protection reform: Why it matters for ethnic and religious minorities

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Data collection should abide by fair standards. [GE/Flickr]

A large amount of data is collected in the EU in contradiction with data protection safeguards and legal standards, writes Andreas Hieronymus. 

Andreas Hieronymus is board member of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

Ethnic and religious minorities are not only kept out of the process, but it is also difficult to assess the extent of these discriminatory data collection practices because of the lack of transparency.

The new regulation on data protection is needed to address the numerous legitimate concerns in Europe about data protection. The collection of personal data must respect appropriate safeguards to ensure privacy.

For European ethnic and religious minorities, however, this regulation might not change much: while official data on incidences of racial discrimination are widely missing in Europe, governments continue to illegally collect data on them.    

2015 may be the year of data protection in the European Union. MEP Jan Philip Albrecht told the Computer, Privacy and Data Protection conference in January 2015 that he is optimistic the Council will find a compromise before the summer on the new Data Protection Regulation.

Measuring and monitoring the extent of discrimination in Europe requires the ‘equality data collection’. Without it, it’s very difficult to effectively tackle discrimination in employment, in schools, in criminal justice, in policing, and more generally in all areas of social life.

There is currently no European-wide data to measure how many, and to what extent, persons experience unequal treatment because of their racial or ethnic origin or even religious background. This happens despite the fact that over one in two Europeans believe that discrimination based on one’s racial or ethnic origin is widespread.

Today, in the aftermaths of the European Data Protection Day, the case needs to be made for the collection of equality data, in full respect of data protection safeguards and the right to privacy.

National governments often use the convenient excuse of the absence of statistics to explain the lack of information on the socio-economic situation of minorities and on their discrimination experience.

This in turn delays or impedes the adoption of adequate and tailored equality policies. The same governments seem to rely on a far too widespread assumption about obstacle to equality data collection:  data protection legislation would prohibit the collection of sensitive data revealing racial or ethnic origin or religion.

For the sake of effective anti-discrimination policies, it is now high time to challenge such excuses and incorrect assumptions.

In terms of legal feasibility first, disaggregated data collection is legally permitted both in EU and national data protection laws, even on the grounds of religion, race or ethnic origin. Data protection safeguards are not forgotten. On the contrary, subjecting disaggregated data collection to reasonable data protection standards, and to the informed consent of respondents, are conditions for it to be legal under EU legislation.

But the reality is that many EU Member States use a form of double discourse. While arguing that equality data collection is not possible, some of them already collect data on different criteria revealing racial or ethnic origin, such as citizenship, country of birth, name, or language spoken at home. However, they do so outside of the necessary safeguards, and sometimes without the consent of the people on which data is being collected.

In addition, governments also often use the data collected in such a way for purposes that do not benefit the discriminated groups. In some cases, they even process sensitive and private data illegally, to control minorities, whether it is through racial profiling, counter-terrorism data mining or prison population statistics.

For example, police files on Roma in Italy, France and Sweden, or reports on the number of Muslim detainees in France.

As a FRA survey has shown, racial or ethnic profiling has affected Muslims across Europe, with data collected on people based on mere assumptions. Current discussions on an EU Passenger Names Record raise concerns on the way these potentially discriminatory practices will be used to profile particular ethnic and religious groups.

No matter what authorities may say, data exists but are often collected in contradiction with data protection safeguards and legal standards. Remarkably, ethnic and religious minorities are not consulted on how they are identified or how the data will actually be used. On top of that, it is hard to assess the extent of these discriminatory data collection practices because of the lack of transparency.

FRA research has also shown that over 65% of ethnic minorities would be in favour of providing, on an anonymous basis, personal information about their ethnic origin, as part of a census, if that could help to combat discrimination in their country. Trust and transparency, once again, are necessary conditions. In Romania, for instance, work on building trust in the Roma community enabled a 56% increase in their identification in the last census.

It is essential, as ENAR recommended that EU Member States focus on collecting useful data according to self-identification of ethnic and religious minorities’ members. Governments also need to work with minorities to build trust, raise awareness and ensure their active participation in such data collection.