Oskar Gstrein is a university lecturer in International and European law. He studies the impact of digitalization on human rights. A subject as grateful as it is complex, in these times of corona. Gstrein is concerned about the curtailment of our freedoms and privacy, but also sees rays of hope. “Our fundamental rights are more important than ever before.”
By Gerard de Jong
Gstrein looks around and counts: “Just here on my desk, there are five cameras and as many microphones,” he sighs, when we talk to him via video link in mid-April. “So many sensors and stimuli. For my work, I look at digital developments from the perspective of human rights. And that may sound very academic, but it might be more practical now than ever.”
The Austrian scholar studied law and philosophy in his native country. During his work as a researcher for the special rapporteur for privacy at the United Nations, he ended up in Groningen. Now he teaches students here and does research at Campus Fryslân’s Data Research Centre. “We explore how to reduce the impact of petty crime,” says Gstrein. “Crime figures have been going down for years, but people are feeling increasingly unsafe. Why is that happening, and what can we do about it?”
The Austrian’s professional field has been in the eye of the storm in recent months. Shortly after the outbreak of the coronavirus, the Netherlands also started designing several apps to stop the pandemic. Gstrein follows the developments with some suspicion. “The ‘appathon’ that the government organi- zed was a disaster. But maybe that is a good thing, at the end of the day. It shows how difficult it is to create an app that both works and protects the user from abuse by the government or criminals.”
The app is, at the same time, a new surveillance system, Gstrein argues. “The app doesn’t identify if someone has corona. The use of these technological resources is potentially very dangerous. In addition, it leads to social pressure. Do we want to know whether our neighbours or colleagues have corona? And how do we respond to people who don’t want to install the app? Refusal causes suspicion.”
On the other hand, there is too much attention for the technical side of such an app, and not enough for its legal and ethical side. “That is what we call ‘Code is law’. First, the product is built, and then research will have to determine whether it is in line with our legislation and rights. You see that happen time and time again. Our fundamental rights seem to be an abstract fact, but we have centuries of experience. The trick is how to properly implement such an app. After 9/11, we were faced with the data retention of our telecom data. We have been struggling with this for two decades now, we know how this data has been abused, among others by Edward Snowden. You would have thought we had learned our lessons from that. It is frustrating that this repeats itself time and again: we must continue to insist on the importance of our human rights.”
“We are not used to a crisis like this. Our grandparents, both farmers in Tyrol, had to deal with world wars. My parents are baby boomers. My brother and I are the first generation with the luxury to do what we wanted. We were raised to conquer the world. That is different for the current generation of students. They are much more aware of big data issues, but they are also constantly feeling more pressure. Today’s adolescents also need space to discover things and grow as a person. They do that, knowing that companies are watching, while no young person can go without social media. That causes pressure. The data trail they leave is much bigger than ours. And they don’t know if and how it will come back to bite them later.” According to Gstrein, “It is a prejudice that young people do not care about privacy.” He also notices this in his students. “The beauty of our fundamental rights is that they are more important than ever in a crisis like this. We can do two things: either we throw them out, or we apply them to this particular situation. And we must continue to ask questions: what do privacy and freedom of expression mean in the digital age?”
This article originally appeared in Connect summer 2020.
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