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If Europe is serious about its data strategy it needs to get ePrivacy right

10 Nov 2020Digital Society

By Joakim Reiter, External Affairs Director, Vodafone Group

Europe is on the cusp of utilizing the full potential of mobility data analytics for the betterment of a whole range of public and private services. The ongoing pandemic has implied a massive step change for many. Understanding the patterns of movements of people in society give us powerful tools to contain the spread of this devastating virus. A number of international organizations, governments, health authorities and companies are now using mobility insights at an unprecedented level, not only to save lives, but also to guide social and economic policies to protect the most vulnerable. We are also beginning to see that mobility insights can contribute significantly to the twin transitions of digital and green. Such data insights are increasingly essential for smart cities, smart transport solutions and many other use-cases.    

The EU is rightly trying to become a leader in digital and to create a European data economy. Commissioner Breton has stressed the importance of seizing the opportunity of data and connectivity. In the areas of mobility data insights, the past few months have also shown that Europe has the skills and ability to unleash the potential of its own data, for the benefits of its citizens, when we all put our minds to it.

Yet, this is now at risk. The German presidency proposal around the ePrivacy Regulation (ePR) would create uncertainty surrounding the current and future use of mobility insights by European telecoms companies. This seems to be a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. While the proposal is well intentioned, it is misguided, would potentially have widespread consequences for all of the use-cases that need to rely on mobility insights and curb areas of data innovation where the Continent has a real chance to be a world leader.  

Let me explain a bit more of what is at stake.

Mobility data from the telecoms networks we use every day — aggregated, anonymized and privacy compliant to fully protect individual customers — can be a rich source of insight for how people move around inside a city, between regions or even across countries.

For example, over the past few months, our mobility insight dashboard has been used by authorities in Spain and Italy to model when they might reopen public and private facilities, and the impact that might have on availability of hospital beds and health facilities.

In addition, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has used our insights from Italy, Portugal and Spain to identify that stay-at-home orders and the associated school closures led to a larger drop in the mobility of women relative to men and that lockdowns tend to have a greater negative impact on younger people. 

Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, in collaboration with the University of Southampton, we used the same data insights and analysis to map the spread of malaria in Mozambique. We are at an early stage of developing powerful insights that will assist health non-governmental organizations to focus their treatments and help stop the spread of infectious diseases that remain a blight on the developing world.

Outside the health area, mobility data is already being used in smart city data platforms to make the most of limited public transport resources, to help real-time traffic management to reduce traffic congestions, and to optimize energy usage, such in case of the city of Seville.

We are convinced that such data-driven collaborations help governments and other policymakers make decisions that better protect and empower citizens. This is a leading-edge area of technology development with significant potential for societal benefit.  

To be clear, we have supported the objectives of the ePR since the European Commission released its proposed draft nearly four years ago. Vodafone agrees that there should be a high level of protection for the right to confidentiality of communications and of individual privacy; we acknowledge also the need for a level playing field between digital services relying on data in the EU.

But we fail to see why the specific activity of processing mobility data, derived from European telecommunications networks, should have far more restrictive rules that all the protections already provided for — and which we support — under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the EU. Four years into lengthy discussions on this legislation, the importance of not getting such additional restrictions wrong have become more apparent than ever. Failing to do so would be a bad result for European businesses, which will be effectively disqualified from the dynamic market of data analytics services, and contrary to the stated objectives of the European Commission to develop EU digital sovereignty.

In giving authorities tools to tackle health and economic crises — only sharing aggregated, anonymized and privacy compliant insights and not the raw customer information — we do not lose European fundamental values, such as protecting the fundamental rights and protections of citizens.

What this period of health and economic crises has already taught us is that governments, industry and civil society groups must work together in the public good. To emerge with better, more digital societies, European countries will need the ability to harness data insights for social good. We already lead the world in terms of privacy protection. Now we also need to allow ourselves to lead in data, and achieve a data economy.

This article originally appeared as sponsored content in Politico on 10 November 2020.

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