Opinion Article: “Personal data and journalism”

Written by Federico Caruso, Journalist at OBC Transeuropa

The extensive collection of data by both private companies and public institutions is a worrying aspect of our societies. The phenomenon is not limited to illegal tracking and surveillance, the latest example of which is well represented by the turmoil that is rocking Greek politics, with journalists and politicians targeted by surveillance activities by security services. This aspect is critical for the sake of our democracies – but it’s just one side of the story.

“We are forgetting for which reasons we were collecting the data”, said EU Data Protection Supervisor Wojciech Wiewiórowski recently, commenting on European policies to control borders and the movement of people in the European space. When people are targeted as “risk factors”, they are treated accordingly. This may seem irrelevant to many of us, but it changes a lot if you’re a vulnerable person – or a journalist.

Speaking of the private sector, “surveillance capitalism” has become a buzzword in recent years, but we’d rather take it seriously. Every day, consciously or not, we feed a commercial sector that depends on the constant supply of people’s personal data. The European General Data Protection Regulation (aka the GDPR) is finally being enforced with some vigour, to the extent that it’s challenging the business model of these companies. But even if the current configuration of surveillance capitalism were to collapse, we need to ask ourselves what comes next.

News organisations are far from neutral in this context. As they navigate the crisis that hit the news sector when it found itself unprepared for the digital turn, behavioural advertising – a system driven by users’ personal data and primarily controlled by Google – still plays a significant role in media budgets.

Journalists and media are thus part of this “surveillance cycle”. They feed it, challenge it and are targeted by it. A very uncomfortable position indeed.