Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli warned that the Cambridge Analytica scandal of earlier this year was a warning to the public that the use of personal data was no longer a simple question of privacy, but one that also concerns the security and durability of democratic norms.
“It is essential to eliminate the slightest doubt about the use of data. Their protection becomes a pillar of democracy,” said Buttarelli. “Digitalisation is not the answer, as responsibility is left to the machines“, adding, “digitisation does not respect geographical boundaries.”
According to Buttarelli, this lack of digital frontiers that correspond to national borders is an existential risk that could influence voters remotely and leave the decision-making process to algorithms. “This requires individuals to make life-changing decisions based on opaque criteria,” he adds, examples, he said, were on display in the 2016 US presidential election that brought Donald J. Trump to power, and the Brexit vote earlier that same year which saw a majority of British voters choose to voluntarily withdraw from the European Union.
Buttarelli also sounded the alarm over the role that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have as guarantors of personal data. The algorithmic decision-making that the social media giants use has, according to Buttarelli, been converted into a weapon aimed at sowing social discontent and weakening of the rule-of-law.
“This is why there is a need to act and why the new EU regulation on data protection is a fundamental element of the management policy of the technological era”, Buttarelli said, adding that data protection regulations are “not enough” for the challenges facing contemporary society.
“Never before has democracy been so clearly dependent on the lawful and fair processing of personal data,” said Buttarelli.
Buttarelli comments came while attending the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners which is being hosted this year by the European Data Protection Supervisor in Brussels.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, founder of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee and philosopher Anita Allen were among those who also spoke at the gathering along with video interventions of the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, technologist Pascale Fung, big tech insider Tristan Harris, European Commissioner Vera Jourova, former Chief Justice of India Jagdish Singh Khehar, and UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.