It might be data protection day on 28 January, but there is precious little to celebrate. “Unfortunately, we are getting used to free services online, in exchange to which the silent deal is that the user is to be transparent," warns Peter Hustinx, the European data protection supervisor. "We need to be more critical." Mr Hustinx's job is to ensure that the European institutions and bodies respect the right to privacy and develop new policies. We asked him about the challenges to overcome.
How do you see data protection following the revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden? Will the recent events bring about some real change in how governments deal with our data?
The whole Snowden story has served as a wake-up call. But what we have now seen is not only extensive spying by the intelligence agencies, but also the dark side of the digital environment which includes things we’re using every day: our smartphones, our portables, our tablets. That is a painful discovery, because it includes us and how we behave.
We are currently involved in a very ambitious review of the legal framework, which will bring stronger rights, obligations, supervision, enforcement and wider scope that will include many of the big companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. These are successful companies, but they have to adjust.
The Parliament strongly pushed for more online privacy, but so far there seems to be little real progress. How do you see the future of data protection law?
Things did not progress as fast as we wished. The Council was not ready. But, I think that the current Greek presidency is doing its best to reach a conclusion by spring, to allow the trialogue to start.
We are seeing evidence that more people are concerned about privacy. Has there been a change in mind-set or do you feel that the issue is still too low on our list of priorities?
I would say the latter. Most people are concerned, but not at the level of their daily actions. They are on Facebook, using gadgets, downloading apps and are worried. But it is you who are responsible for your settings.
Unfortunately, we are getting used to a lot of free services online, in exchange to which the silent deal is that user is to be transparent. So, be careful who you trust, exercise your rights, ask questions. We need to be more critical.