TechSonar: technologies worth monitoring

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

It is undeniable that - amongst a number of difficulties – the COVID-19 pandemic will leave us with many lessons learned. Above all, we have certainly learned that the world changes and will continue to change, sometimes quite unexpectedly. We have also realised that there is room for manoeuver whereby we can understand the changes, anticipate them, and direct them towards a more sustainable future.

To do this, we need new tools and new sensibilities. In particular, the acceleration of technological change that took place as a consequence of COVID-19 makes these capabilities even more necessary. Often we do not know the real main uses that these technologies will have until they are applied in specific contexts. Only then, will we be able to understand the value and risks that these technologies may have on society.

The General Data Protection Regulation, in recital 4, reminds us that: "processing of personal data should be designed to serve mankind". For this to happen, at such a complex time, we are convinced that it is increasingly important to act in advance. In other words, instead of reacting to new emerging technologies when their added value and risks for society are already developed, we should be able to anticipate their developments. In this way, we can foresee the risks and better support the value-creation process of these technologies. As a result, we will nudge their development towards the respect of fundamental rights and interests of individuals, reducing their risks from the earliest stages of their adoption.

This approach will also help us focus our energy making Europe more resilient and future-proof, as already indicated in the latest foresight report of the European Commission.

Based on all this, a big question arose here at EDPS. Which technologies are worth monitoring today in order to be prepared for a more sustainable digital future where the protection of personal data is efficiently guaranteed?

To find proper answers to this question, we launch today our new initiative: TechSonar.

TechSonar is a process that empowers the EDPS to continuously analyse the technology arena with the aim of selecting tech trends we foresee for the following year.

Thanks to an agile and collaborative approach, a team of in-house technology experts meets regularly with the aim to provide a basic understanding of the selected technologies and highlight their main positive and negative impacts regarding the protection of personal data. The outputs will be published and continuously updated in a dedicated section on the EDPS website.

With TechSonar, we would like to take our first step in contributing to the wider debate on emerging technologies from a data protection point of view. As the independent supervisory authority for all EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, we aim to contribute to the ongoing wider debate on foresight within these institutions. We also hope that TechSonar will serve as a compass for future and more in-depth activities, both by the EDPS itself and other data protection authorities in Europe and around the world. 

TechSonar falls within the first pillar of our Strategy 2020-2024, Foresight. While our successful TechDispatch continues to provide in-depth analysis on specific emerging technologies, TechSonar is our tool for navigating the surface of the complexity and uncertainty of the tech domain in general.

We are grateful to all the people that helped us with this first exercise. In particular, Professor Roberto Poli, who is professor at the University of Trento and UNESCO Chair in anticipatory systems, who helped us develop our awareness of the culture of foresight.