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Experts call for global data-protection rules

Modern technology can be a threat for privacy

(Keystone)

Switzerland is for the first time playing host to an annual international conference on data protection and privacy rights.

Experts say steps are needed to standardise the different national laws and prevent data abuses in a globalised world.

Jean-Philippe Walter of the Swiss federal data protection authorities says new technologies are a major challenge as they make it possible for detailed personal profiles to be created and individuals to be traced.

"The new technologies make it possible to collect an ever increasing amount of information on people, without their knowledge.

"It is possible to collect and pass on information for ends which might not be the identical with the original purpose," said Walter.

Experts say that in an increasingly globalised world it has become crucial to agree common rules to prevent breaches of privacy rights.

Over the past three decades data protection and privacy commissioners have been meeting regularly for an exchange of views.

Ambitious goal

Switzerland is for the first time hosting the meeting, which this year brings together representatives from 40 countries, scientists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

More than 300 experts will discuss the lack of international control standards for data protection in a globalised world.

"You need a strong commitment to preserve privacy rights, but that's what these annual conferences are designed for," said Walter.

He acknowledges that it is an ambitious goal for the meeting and warns of the challenges.

"The new technologies are like the Wild West, it is uncharted territory from a legal point of view."

Walter adds that it is imperative to set up an international monitoring system particularly for commercial law and banking.

Ethics for the web

Jacques Neirynck, professor at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and a former parliamentarian, agrees with Walter in principle.

But Neirynck believes that modern technologies are fundamentally a good thing.

"You have to create ethical principles for the internet," Neirynck, who acts as conference speaker, told swissinfo.

Data has to be made accessible for those who need it for legal reasons, but not for public use, he added.

The three-day conference in Montreux hopes to adopt a final declaration which will pave the way for a global system for data protection.

Such rules could be of interest to all sectors of society, according to Jean-Phillipe Walter.

He points out that the disparity of legal systems and cultural standards has huge repercussions for the economy and has become a concern for multi-national corporations.

"We don't necessarily need to draw up common rules, but at least we have to try to apply the same concept. This would facilitate the exchange of information [between the authorities]," Walter said.

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

There are data protection laws in about 40 countries.
The legislation is mainly based on guidelines drawn up the OECD and the Council of Europe in 1981.
The Swiss parliament approved a data protection law in 1992 in the wake of a scandal surrounding secret police files.

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In brief

Switzerland is for the first time hosting the annual International Conference and Privacy and Personal Data Protection.

It is taking place in Montreux on Lake Geneva between September 14-16.

The conference, which was opened by Swiss President Samuel Schmid, focuses on the protection of personal data and privacy in a globalised world.

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