Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor (“EDPS”), has announced plans to set up a new European Ethics Advisory Board to address the technological challenges of the 21st century in a world where there are now more connected devices on the planet than people. He stated, “in today’s digital environment, adherence to the law is not enough; we have to consider the ethical dimension of data processing”.

The Opinion paper, published by the EDPS 11 September 2015, highlights the difficulties in protecting the dignity of the human person, including the rights to privacy and protection of personal data, against a digital landscape in which there are now more connected devices on the planet than people. He has called for a broader discussion on how to “ensure the integrity of [European] values while embracing the benefits of new technologies”. While the EDPS considers that data protection principles have proved capable of safeguarding individuals and their privacy from the risks of irresponsible data processing, he believes that today’s trends “may require a completely fresh approach”, and has urged those responsible internationally to promote an “ethical dimension in future technologies”.

Individuals are required to disclose much more personal information than ever before over the Internet, with limited scope for opting out. Further, with much activity carried out online, the notion of free and informed consent has been placed under enormous strain. The paper also highlights the problem of the constant flow of data, which could make “society and economy more vulnerable to unprecedented security flaws and malicious attacks”.

In light of this, the EDPS proposes an external advisory group whose role it will be to explore the relationships between human rights, technology, markets and business models in the 21st century. The aim is for a thorough, broad and multidisciplinary analysis “to provide recommendations and inform societal debate on how a free, democratic society should meet the technological challenge”.  The Ethics Advisory Board will extend beyond EU officials, lawyers and IT specialists, and will be made up of “eminent persons who are equipped to judge the medium to long-term implications of technological change and regulatory responses”. This includes distinguished persons from fields such as ethics and philosophy, sociology, psychology, technology and economics, and transport and energy.

The EDPS envisages that a new EU data protection ethics board can “help define a new digital ethics”, allowing the EU to realise the benefits of technology for society and the economy in ways that reinforce the rights and freedoms of individuals.