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EU privacy watchdog issues warning over transport monitoring

New systems planned by the European Commission to ease traffic problems across Europe do not adequately protect the privacy of travellers, according to the regulator set up to monitor the privacy implications of Commission actions.23 Jul 2009

The European Commission plans to create a framework within which it will be easier for governments and transport operators to set up EU-wide tracking and monitoring systems for transport.

European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx, who is responsible for regulating EU bodies' privacy practices, said that he had concerns about the proposals.

Though the systems are aimed at making transport more environmentally friendly and less time consuming, Hustinx said that they could be used to monitor individuals' movements across the continent.

"The deployment of ITS will support the development of applications for 'tracking and tracing' of goods and will allow for the deployment of location-based commercial and public services," said a formal opinion produced by Hustinx. "The use of location technologies is particularly intrusive from a privacy viewpoint as it allows for the tracking of drivers and for the collection of a wide variety of data relating to their driving habits."

"The processing of location data is a particularly sensitive matter involving the key issue of the freedom to move anonymously, and which requires the implementation of specific safeguards in order to prevent surveillance of individuals and misuse of the data," his opinion said.

The Commission has proposed a 'deployment plan' for intelligent transport systems (ITS) which aims to standardise data processing throughout Europe so that ITS can work across borders.

Hustinx, though, said that the plans do not take great enough account of individuals' need for privacy.

"The proposed legal framework is too broad and general to adequately address the privacy and data protection concerns raised by ITS deployment in the Member States," said the opinion. "It is not clear when the performance of ITS services will lead to the collection and processing of personal data, what are the specific purposes for which a data processing occurs, nor what is the legal basis that justifies such processing."

"Furthermore, the use of location technologies for ITS deployment raises the risk of developing services that are intrusive from a privacy viewpoint if they entail the collection and exchange of personal data," it said.

Hustinx's opinion also pointed out that the plans are not clear enough to create a consistent level of data protection across the EU in the transport systems.

"There is a risk that the lack of clarity of the proposed legal framework will create diversity in the implementation of ITS in Europe which will lead to different levels of data protection in Europe. The EDPS emphasizes the need for further harmonisation on these issues at EU level to clarify outstanding issues," it said.

"It is particularly crucial to identify who the data controllers will be in respect of the data processing performed, as they will bear the responsibility to ensure that privacy and data protection considerations are implemented at all levels of the chain of processing," said the opinion.

The Commission said that ITS would join up information from the road, water and air transport networks and that this would reduce congestion and the damaging effects transport has on the environment.