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Europe Data Protection Digest | Notes from the IAPP Europe Managing Director, August 28, 2015 Related reading: FTC's Chopra: 'Enforcing the law should mean something'

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Greetings from Brussels!

As if working in privacy couldn’t become more mind boggling, with the impending GDPR and its far-reaching implications, now make way for Joseph Cannataci, the UN’s first Privacy Chief. Published in The Guardian this week, Cannataci is calling for a Geneva Convention-style international agreement for the Internet to safeguard data and combat the threat of massive clandestine digital surveillance. This is a bold statement in our current heightened security climate, taking into account the on-going threat of borderless international terrorism. While there are undoubtedly many world citizens who will see the value in such a proposition, there may well be many eyebrows raised. Is there a realistic balance to strike in the quagmire here?

Cannataci described British surveillance oversight as “a joke,” and said the situation is worse than anything George Orwell could have foreseen. Despite holding up the UK as the worst offender, this is meant as an example and he is critical of the west as a whole. This is a man who has no Facebook or Twitter account. When asked why, Cannataci responds that since he believes in privacy, he has never had the need for either. He is staggered by the vast number of people who sign away their digital rights, without a second thought, through the many platforms of social and communication media.

Cannataci agrees that his notion of a new universal law on surveillance could embarrass those who may not sign up to it—and there may well be many, I feel. “Some people may not want to buy into it,” he acknowledged. He however makes a valid point by stating: “But you know, if one takes the attitude that some countries will not play ball, then, for example, the chemical weapons agreement would never have come about.” Sometimes it takes the bold and seemingly impossible to start that ball rolling.

Cannataci’s appointment to this new UN role is a significant development in a number of ways. In a first instance, clearly the UN are serious about the Digital Age being upon us in a particularly viral and exponential way, but more importantly the right to privacy is being elevated to that of other human rights; that in itself is a seismic shift. Defining privacy and building awareness among the public are two of the four main areas he has identified moving forward; pause for applause.

There can be little doubt that informing world citizenry as to their daily privacy exposure so as to act freely within their rights is a tall order. Not one for the UN alone,  I might add. The EU and its member states, along with other international authorities, have an obligation to educate citizens in such matters. And I might add that the record to date—from where I sit—is not a particularly good one. The up-side is that we are hearing more and more about the educational need, so let’s weigh on the side of optimism and hope it will be forthcoming.

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