Annals of privacy

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Daniel Cressey, "Fisheries science falls foul of privacy rules", Nature 6/6/2012:

A little-noticed tweak to one of the European Union’s many rules and regulations is leaving fisheries scientists struggling to access vital data. […]

At the heart of the problem is information from devices called Vessel Monitoring Systems, which are attached to many European fishing boats to record their position, direction and speed. From these data, the boats' fishing patterns can be reconstructed, allowing researchers to assess fishing activity and, for example, examine the environmental impact on specific areas.

In 2009 a new European Commission rule was brought in, restricting who could access what data within the EU. This rule took some time to filter through, says Hinz, but it is now becoming apparent that the very detailed fisheries data needed by some academics are no longer available. The bodies in charge of the data will only release information that has been aggregated over areas measuring about 5.5 kilometres to some academics, which is not detailed enough for many studies, Hinz says. […]

The commission adds that the body charged with overseeing the use of data and privacy within the EU, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), recently ruled that information from vessel monitoring systems is classed as personal data in some circumstances. This means that the information may be subject to data protection rules, making it more difficult to release it to scientists in a format in which individual boats may be identifiable.

As preposterous as this seems, we should be careful not to conclude (as some people apparently have) that European privacy laws makes it impossible for any speech data ever to be published for research purposes. Without investigating the details of the regulations in question, I presume that individuals are free to waive their right to privacy with respect to a specific recording or quotation. The alternative would be to forbid anyone from ever being quoted in a newspaper or on the radio or television, since the resulting stories become part of a generally-accessible database by virtue of being archived on the publisher or broadcaster's web site.

And people continue to be quoted and recorded in Europe's newspapers and broadcast media every day — though perhaps the European Data Protection Supervisor is looking into the matter.

[Via Stewart Baker, "Privacy Rots from Head", The Volokh Conspiracy 6/8/2012]


  1. Howard Oakley said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

    There are some smoke and mirrors behind this change, which I think is part of the long-running battle between those operating fishing fleets, and those trying to regulate them. Having visited some commercial fishing boats many years ago, their skippers (and companies operating them) have a deep desire not to reveal where they are, or where they go. This is not just a matter of 'commercial secrecy', but because some do break the law, and sometimes as much as they can get away with.
    I suspect that the industry lobbyists have made a case for this very peculiar approach to manifestly non-personal data to be treated as if it contains personal data, hence to fall under EU laws on protection of privacy. Given the attitudes within the industry, I am amazed that they ever got fishing vessels to record where they went in the first place: it is a bit like an alcoholic agreeing to having a constant blood-alcohol meter providing data to the local police.

    [(myl) As I noted here, some speech and language researchers also have a personal interest in an interpretation of regulations that gives them exclusive access to the research data that the government pays them to collect. To what extent this influences their actions is a matter of speculation.]

    Broadcasters in the EU are armed with detailed release agreements that have to be signed before any material can be broadcast. Although this might seem clumsy, it works quite well.

    [(myl) Indeed. And that is exactly what researchers in the U.S. need to do in order to be able to publish speech collections made for research purposes; and I believe that the basic situation in Europe is similar.]

    Potentially personal data gained during research are issues that have to be dealt with in research protocols. The key here is usually anonymization: so long as that is effective, most ethics committees should have no problems, although consent forms must be explicit about how data will be used, and how privacy will be protected.
    Most people that I know who complain about European privacy issues being a stumbling block to research, or broadcasting, or anything else, are those who are not familiar with what actually happens (within the law).

    [(myl) Everything that you say is basically true in the U.S. as well. Sometimes a local Institutional Review Board, or an individual member, may try to apply an excessively stringent (and incorrect) interpretation of the policies — I have heard, perhaps apocryphally, of oral-history compilers who were told that they would have to destroy all recordings and transcripts as soon as their research was published, because that was the rule of thumb for debriefings of subjects in biomedical research experiments. But researchers can overcome this sort of thing, given some patience and an effort to work with IRB representatives to achieve mutual understanding of the letter and spirit of the actual laws and policies involved.]

  2. Rubrick said,

    June 11, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

    I'm a bit perplexed by the "humor" tag on this post. Is there some slant that I'm missing?

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