Series on Data Protection and Corona – Part 8: Social assessment of the importance of data protection

30. March 2020

The Corona crisis is not only a challenge for the health system, the economy and each and every one of us. People in the so-called ‘systemically important’ professions have been working at their physical and psychological limits for days and are constantly exposed to the virus and its consequences.

The economic damage to be feared has so far only been guessed and is causing additional concern. The issue is currently omnipresent. Everyone is worried about infecting themselves or others and whether you, your family, friends and acquaintances will survive the crisis economically or in terms of health.

In these times, it is understandably difficult to continue dealing with data protection. Quite a few people, especially in times of the coronavirus, simply don’t want to deal with the “annoying” data protection issues and some even see data protection as an additional hurdle, for example when it comes to remote work.

Social assessment of data protection

In the last few days we have made every effort to explain to you the data protection regulations and measures as well as the special features of the current situation. Finally, we would like to mention the general social attitude towards the topic of data protection and want to point out the important role even in times of the coronavirus.

Already at the beginning of March, the German newspaper FAZ published an article on the results of a survey, which contained the results of a representative survey conducted by the market research company Innofact on behalf of Usercentrics. The result of this study was that a large part of the German population is prepared to accept restrictions on data protection and thus the right to informational self-determination in order to combat the corona crisis. In addition, the majority of the respondents also advocate the expansion of data retention (for example, of flight and travel data) in order to be able to track the spread of the pandemic. Moreover, more than 50% are prepared to disclose their health data voluntarily.

When the Robert-Koch-Institute (RKI) announced that it had received several terabytes of anonymised data from a German telecommunications provider in order to trace movement patterns of the users and thus assess the effectiveness of the measures imposed to date, there were also hardly any voices critical of such data transfer. This may be due to the fact that the data was anonymised. In other countries, however, data has not been transfered anonymously. In China, South Korea and Taiwan, for example, phone-tracking technologies and mobile phone apps were used to break down movement patterns to individuals.

A similar but slightly different way, based on the cooperation of the persons, has been established by the Austrian Red Cross. The Red Cross has developed the app “Stopp Corona” (article in German). Users of the app are supposed to track who they have been in contact with and, in case of an infection, also addthis information in the app to automatically inform the contacts of the last 48 hours about the infection and ask them to isolate themselves. According to the Red Cross, the data processing will take place anonymized. The app is available for Android devices in Austria since Tuesday, 24.03.2020. It remains to be seen whether and with what success this and similar apps can help in the spread of the pandemic.

Are these findings new?

But are these findings really new, or do they just appear in a different light due to reference to the corona crisis?

The majority of the population uses the social media services Facebook and Instagram. In addition, messengers such as WhatsApp continue to enjoy great popularity in society and are just as popular worldwide as Google Maps. What all these services have in common is that they have all been in the media because of conflicts with data protection regulations. Users must therefore be aware that they reveal a great deal about themselves personally, their interests, hobbies, whereabouts, etc. This is willingly accepted in order to take advantage of the supposedly free benefits they gain by using the above-mentioned services. However, the operators of these services are all too happy to be compensated with the voluntarily provided data of users, for example in order to place advertising tailored to the individual.

The realization that personal data is provided more or less voluntarily is therefore no news. In the current situation, the undoubtedly important purpose of combating the pandemic only seems a welcome excuse, because it seems ‘desirable’ to put data protection before a higher goal.

But even if certain measures, especially when data is used anonymously, seem to be useful in combating the corona virus, even now interventions in the informational self-determination of each individual should only be made after careful consideration, so that each person can continue to develop freely within the framework of his or her freedoms and rights. That is why, even in times of the corona crisis, it is important to preserve the data protection requirements of the GDPR and local data protection and other laws which carry the idea of informational self-determination, also and above all when sensitive data such as health data are to be processed.

This blogpost concludes the daily contributions of the Series on Data Protection and Corona. From time to time, we will of course add new contributions from the field to this series and will of course continue to keep you informed about data protection news that have no connection to Corona.

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We wish you only the best, stay healthy and protect yourself and others.