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EU privacy watchdog to conduct review of big data potential within existing legal boundaries

Representatives from data protection authorities (DPA) in the EU are to assess how data could be better used across industries within existing legal boundaries.14 Jul 2014

Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, chair of the Article 29 Working Party, a committee made up of representatives from EU privacy watchdogs, confirmed the move in a recent letter to John Podesta (3-page / 217KB PDF), an advisor to US president Barack Obama. The letter was sent in response to a report published in the US this spring on big data opportunities and privacy implications.

"The Working Party intends to carry out its own assessment of the development of big data on the basis of the EU legal framework," Falque-Pierrotin said.

'Big data' is a term used to describe the vast and ever-increasing generation of data and the possibilities presented through analysing the information using improving computer software.

Falque-Pierrotin said that the US report had identified a number of areas in which big data can work in practice, such as to improve health services, which are also relevant to ongoing debate within the EU.

She said the Working Party believes that a number of guidelines it has issued in recent months on aspects of data protection law, including in relation to anonymisation techniques, purpose limitation and on legitimate interest, are also "consistent with the analysis of some privacy concerns which are identified in the [US] report".

Falque-Pierrotin said the Working Party would cooperate with counterparts in the US on the actions needed to harness the potential of big data whilst ensuring "that EU as well as US concerns are duly taken into consideration".

"Many important benefits are expected from the development of big data," she said. "Nevertheless, big data also raises important concerns with regard to the privacy of the individuals concerned, the civil rights protection, as well as social and ethical questions. An appropriate balance must be struck between these expected collective benefits and the risks for individuals. This naturally raises the question of whether this balance can be struck within the existing legal framework that is applicable to the development of this trend."

The US report stressed the potential of big data to "unlock previously inaccessible insights from new and existing data sets" and to "fuel developments and discoveries in health care and education, in agriculture and energy use, and in how businesses organize their supply chains and monitor their equipment".

However, it also warned of the risk that "small biases" that can accrue from analysing data "become cumulative, affecting a wide range of outcomes for certain disadvantaged groups".

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