Reinventing the trainee conference in times of COVID-19

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

Upon the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, our everyday life changed to the extent that we were afraid that components of our Europe would be stolen from us forever.Our trainees managed to organise a successful and insightful webinar on privacy and data protection, highlighting that the pillars of democratic systems based on the rule of law should be preserved and prove their resilience vis-à-vis an emergency.

Inevitably, the subject of their webinar affected by the reality of COVID-19, focused on the repercussions of this global health crisis on the fundamental right to data protection.

Our trainees explain their experience and provide further details on the outcome of the debate.

Here is their story.

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

It is a long-established tradition that the EDPS and EDPB trainees host a data protection conference for fellow EU trainees. This conference marks the end of our traineeship. By organising this event, we honoured the tradition and even reinvented it, as this is the first time that such a conference took place online.

We all remember how nervous we were when, during our first week, the EDPS told us we would be fully in charge of a conference! In March, the consequences of this soon-to-become global pandemic were unimaginable to any us. Not much later, it became clear that exploring new routes was the only solution to make this project a reality. With no handbook to follow, this seemed like a daunting challenge. Nonetheless, with the full support of our teams encouraging us to insist on this project, we managed to make this happen.

On Tuesday, our efforts came to fruition, as our speakers and long list of participants joined the online conference via webstream.

The pandemic made everyone, including trainees, face new challenges. We confronted serious problems, such as loneliness, anxiety, first experiences with telework, and uncertainty. Despite these unprecedented times, working at the EDPS and the EDPB, allowed us to be on the frontline of a crucial data protection discussion in the context of a pandemic. It was clear from the beginning that the measures to mitigate the pandemic were going to have repercussions on our fundamental rights.

Consequently, it felt natural for the event to focus on data protection in times of COVID-19. To examine the impact of the various measures taken to tackle the pandemic and data protection. We sought to shed some light on how the fight against the pandemic has and continues to affect our fundamental right to data protection. We therefore asked our moderator, Anna Colaps, Member of the Cabinet of the Supervisor (EDPS), to focus the discussion on the following questions:

  • Yesterday — Was the existing data protection framework robust and comprehensive enough to protect our rights before and during the global pandemic?
  • Today — To what extent are the responses to the crisis in balance with the right to data protection?
  • Tomorrow — Will the pandemic have a lasting effect on the perspective that society has on data protection?

Three experts in the field of data protection addressed these questions: Christopher Kuner, Law Professor and Director of the Brussels Privacy Hub; Gary Davis, Global Director of Privacy Law and Enforcement Requests at Apple; María Paz Canales, Executive Director of the NGO Derechos Digitales, which promotes the development, defence and promotion of Human Rights in the digital environment in Latin America. Furthermore, it was an honour to have Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the European Data Protection Supervisor; and Isabelle Vereecken, the head of the EDPB Secretariat, who each gave their insightful opening and closing remarks.

When deciding on the speakers, we took into account several factors, including the expertise of each speaker in the COVID-19 data protection debate and the unique views they could bring to the panel discussion. In our attempt to reflect on this global problem, we welcomed experts from outside the EU.

In this sense, María Paz Canales’s contribution turned out to be essential as she gave a voice to the Latin American society. With her expertise, she helped to contextualise and explain the importance of a robust data protection system. She explained how in certain countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, the absence of a legal data protection framework might lead to governments approving emergency laws and policies that can pose risks to citizens' right to data protection and privacy. María also highlighted the false dichotomy of “privacy vs health”, and noted that there are numerous ways in which data can be useful without endangering human rights and welfare.

In addition, our panel gathered experts from different backgrounds (academia, business, regulatory and civil society), so that our audience could learn about these different realities and compare them.

Professor Kuner addressed the risk of function creep (the use of technology and systems in ways beyond the original purpose), while also considering the potential long-term repercussions of this crisis for data protection.  In this respect, he discussed whether the processing of personal data, including health data from public authorities, might open the doors to surveillance both in public and private life. He stressed that the GDPR offers flexibility regarding data collection for health purposes, but it also establishes conditions for data processing that should not be forgotten.

Finally, Gary Davis opined on the role of new technologies deployed in the fight against the pandemic. He went on to explain how Apple and Google collaborated with national governments to limit risks and prevent the use of personal data collected on individuals via contact tracing technologies, for other purposes. In his work for Apple, which involved updating operative systems to make the national contract tracing app projects possible, it became evident that many of these technologies lacked the ability to gain or maintain users’ trust. It is therefore necessary to build this trust through transparency efforts and discussions with the public and authorities.

Today, we can proudly say that the webinar surpassed our expectations, in terms of the interest it generated and enriching discussions among the 100 participants. As our traineeship draws to an end, we look back on this unique and flourishing experience offered by the EDPS and EDPB. Thank you to everyone who made the event possible, not only by providing us with this opportunity, but also for contributing to the event with their expertise.