Is Privacy Really a Fundamental Right?

Privacy of individuals is framed as a fundamental right in the European Union. In fact, the new European Union Regulation no. 2016/679 reiterates this in the very first of its “whereas”.

Yet, it is clear to everyone that such “fundamental” nature is regularly questioned by various factors, and particularly:

  • Technological progress, coupled with people’s growing addiction to smartphones, allowing the collection of an amazing number of personally identifiable information and leading to big banks of intrusive data; and
  • Security threats that prompt governments to closely monitor citizens’ behavior.

Once upon a time courts were called to decide on how to balance conflicting rights. These days, the act of balancing privacy and other issues has become much more common and it is in the hands of a variety of subjects, such as data processors, who must carry out a data protection impact assessment according to Section 35 of the EU Regulation no. 2016/679, and data protection authorities, who provide both general guidelines and specific advice.

A couple of recent decisions by the Italian Data Protection Authority have led me to believe that the Authority is readier than before to accept that there are justified limits to the right to privacy:

  • On July 14, 2016, the Italian Data Protection Authority has decided that a bank is allowed to analyze behavioral/biometric information regarding its customers (such as mouse movements or pressure on the touch screen) as a measure to fight identity theft and internet banking fraud. Of course, a number of limitations have been set by the Authority, in addition to consent of the customer/data subject, such as specific safety measures, purpose and time limitations, and the segregation of the customer names from the bank’s IT provider.
  • On July 28, 2016, the same Authority has granted its favorable opinion to the use of a face recognition software at the Olimpico stadium during soccer games in order to check that the data on the ticket and the face of the person actually attending the event correspond. Provided that strong security measures are used and that the processing is carried out by police forces, the processing was deemed to be necessary.

A tougher stance, instead, is adopted by the Italian Data Protection Authority in cases of processing aimed at marketing purposes, as in this decision, for example. (I note, however, that the code of conduct applying to data processing for the purposes of commercial information that will enter into force on October 1, 2016, blessed by the Italian Data Protection Authority, continues to allow the dispatching of commercial communications to individuals whose personal data is included in public listings, even without the data subject’s express consent).

Balancing rights and interests is inherent to law and justice. It remains to be seen, considering the obvious (and absolutely reasonable) limitations to which the right to privacy is subject, if it will continue to make sense to frame it as “fundamental” right.

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