Digital Brief: Data for the Common Good?

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“The Commission should clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain…”

– European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, 25 March.


COVID-19 DATA SHARING. The European Commission’s Internal Market chief Thierry Breton has defended plans to obtain mobile data from EU telecom firms during the coronavirus outbreak, saying the acquisition of certain datasets allows for a clearer reading of “the impact of the confinement measures taken by member states.”


*Also this week*

COVID-19 tracking in Slovakia, Smart Quarantines in the Czech Republic, 5G delay in Austria, COVID-19 online scams, EU ‘data for the common good,’ Huawei scales down on mask diplomacy, Tech in Borrell’s Human Rights Action Plan, COVID-19 Media Action Plan, and more….


The Commission has requested telecom firms to hand over “anonymised mobile metadata to help analysing the patterns of diffusion of the coronavirus,” and has also consulted the European Data Protection Supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, for advice on the matter.

The EDPS highlighted the legality of the Commission’s move, saying that “data protection rules currently in force in Europe are flexible enough to allow for various measures taken in the fight against pandemics.”

However, the EDPS did ask the Commission to be transparent on the specific type of data that it wants from telecommunications firms. “The Commission should clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain and ensure transparency towards the public, to avoid any possible misunderstandings,” Wiewiórowski said.

Data for the ‘common good.’ Moreover, by year end, the European Commission is to task EU member states with establishing structures that facilitate the use of data for the ‘common good.’ And the executive is hoping that the Coronavirus crisis can be leveraged to demonstrate the power of data analytics.

I caught up with Yvo Volman, Head of DG Connect’s Data Policy and Innovation Unit earlier this week at the Brussels edition of the European Cybersecurity Forum, CYBERSEC, which was held online. “The current crisis shows the enormous potential of data, and the impact of data analytics on decision making has been huge,” he said.

“Data is making a massive difference in the crisis,” Volman said, adding that there will be “calls to speed up” the European Strategy for Data, but that the Commission wants to ensure a proportionate roll out of the measures included in the plan announced in February. Read more here.

COVID-19 Apps. Elsewhere in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, the use of symptom tracker applications has also recently caused concern among privacy activists.

Researchers from King’s College London and St Thomas’ and Guy’s hospitals, in collaboration with the health data science company ZOE, have developed the Covid symptom tracker app, which allows coronavirus patients to submit data about themselves and their condition, as a means to analyse the development and spread of the virus.

The company also states that they use third parties to process personal data on their behalf. ZOE state that they “have in place with each processor, a contract that requires them only to process the data on our instructions and to take proper care in using it.” The third party firms with whom the data will be shared include Amazon Web Services and Google.

EURACTIV’s Philipp Grüll looks into how governments in Germany and Austria are turning to Big Data to monitor adherence to the rules and track the chains of infection.

5G Delays. Meanwhile, Grüll also reports that Austria’s telecom-regulator RTR have decided to postpone the auction of 5G frequencies, originally planned for April, due to the corona-pandemic.

This stops Austria’s 5G-expansion in its tracks. Some selected towns had already been equipped with the standard, but the April auction would have been a crucial to kick-start anything resembling a meaningful 5G-distribution.

DSA Delays? There is a degree of uncertainty in Brussels at the moment on how long certain digital policies could be postponed, or even brought forward. Speaking at CYBERSEC earlier this week, Acting Head of Unit of the Online Platforms and e-Commerce Unit in DG Connect, Prabhat Agarwal, said that the public consultation on the Digital Services Act, is ready to go, but approval still needs to be granted from the ‘control tower,’ and delays could be in the offing while senior members of staff are caught up in the COVID-19 crisis.

Meanwhile, Parliament’s Culture Committee have published a draft opinion to the Committee on Legal affairs on that plans, highlighting the importance of ensuring access to journalistic material that has already been subject to ‘a generally recognised independent oversight.’

Parliament approves tracking people infected with COVID-19. The country’s Public Health Office will start tracking the movements of persons infected with COVID-19 with their consent using data from telecom operators after parliament passed the so-called ‘lex corona’ bill. EURACTIV Slovakia’s Zuzana Gabrižová digs deeper.

Smart quarantine. The Czech Republic will launch a new “smart quarantine system” to track the movements of infected citizens. The monitoring system, which requires consent, will use data from mobile phones and payment cards of people who have been tested positive to find all the potential people that could be infected as a result. Aneta Zachová reports from Prague.

COVID-19 Online Scams. Moreover, the Commission has rebuked online platforms including Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba and eBay for the alleged “proliferation of deceptive marketing techniques” that exploit consumers’ fear of coronavirus for economic gain.

eBay and Amazon counterfeit goods. In this vein, a Which? investigation yesterday found that eBay and Amazon Marketplace are failing to crack down on a spate of coronavirus-profiteering by sellers.

Mask Diplomacy. Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei will scale down its European mask donation programme for fear of becoming embroiled in a wider geopolitical powerplay, following comments from the EU’s Foreign Chief Josep Borrell that a ‘politics of generosity’ is being played out, an official from the company informed EURACTIV.

Meanwhile, EURACTIV’s pan-European network for journalists have surveyed China’s attempts at ‘mask diplomacy’ across the bloc.

China’s COVID-19 data harvesting. EURACTIV Slovakia’s Lucia Yar has looked into China’s use of personal data to decelerate the spread of virus.

Signal story. Recently, the EU executive has made it clear that staff should use the messaging app Signal, a less popular, but potentially more secure competitor to WhatsApp. This comes after countries in the EU failed to agree on governing rules for WhatsApp (as well as for Skype), as part of discussions on the recent ePrivacy regulation. Sam Bocetta digs deeper.

Technology and human rights. Yesterday, the Commission published a communication on its EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024, for which the Commission is seeking the backing of EU governments. The role of technology and its proximity to human rights abuses was highlighted, with the Commission stating that certain applications can support “abusive, unlawful restrictions on movement and speech.”

“Social media platforms are used to channel targeted disinformation and hate speech that often violate privacy and undermine democracy and human rights,” the communication continued.

In this context, recently the European Court of Auditors launched a probe into the bloc’s attempts to stifle fake news that can ’cause public harm.’

Meanwhile, Daniel Milo, Stratcom Policy Director at GLOBSEC, analyses the landscape of misinformation in a geopolitical context, in relation to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 Media Plan. In this Open Letter to the President of the EU Commission, media stakeholders and experts, in a personal capacity, along with MEPs and former MEPs ask for the Commission to support trust in public action, and to help sustain the media in this testing time.

COVID-19 & Musicians. Meanwhile, the Independent Music Companies Association (IMPALA), have published a package of ten recommendations seeking urgent action at EU, national and sector level, with the aim of securing a co-ordinated approach across Europe to minimise the impact of COVID-19 on the independent music sector.

WHO Hacking. Elite hackers tried to break into the World Health Organization earlier this month, sources told Reuters, part of what a senior agency official said was a more than two-fold increase in cyberattacks.

German hackathon. Last weekend, the German government had 42,869 participants  working to find innovative solutions to acute challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. The result: over 800 ideas on topics such as shopping, childcare and symptom monitoring. EURACTIV’s Philipp Grüll reports.

Freedom of expression risks in TERREG? The coronavirus pandemic and the flawed solutions companies have suggested to tackle misinformation and content moderation show why we must push for systemic improvements and safeguards for these systems, write Eliška Pírková, Europe policy analyst at Access Now, with Eva Simon, advocacy officer for the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties).

Copyright one year on. One year ago, the European Parliament adopted the Copyright Directive. Recently across Europe, thousands of film and TV directors and screenwriters have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. In this context, on Thursday the Society of Audiovisual Authors (SAA) called for urgent transposition of the directive across Europe.

“Once the COVID-19 crisis is over, the Copyright Directive will have to be transposed to help authors to be able to continue to create in a better legal environment. At this stage, the SAA wishes to call for everyone’s solidarity with audiovisual authors and for a strong mobilisation of national and European public authorities”, said Cécile Despringre, SAA Executive Director.

AirBnB. The global accommodation sharing platform have launched a new global platform to help connect medical staff fighting the coronavirus outbreak to free accommodation provided by hosts.


On my radar. together with the University of Oxford, has organised its 12th webinar entitled “A visual guide to the EU Cybersecurity project landscape” on 2nd April 2020 at 11 AM CET. The webinar will introduce the Cyberwatching Project Radar, how it works, and how the gathered data is processed and visualised.



What else I’m reading this week:

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)


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