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Students from Leiden University's Advanced Master's in Law & Digital Technologies complete summer work experience

Students from eLaw completed a successful work experience programme researching contact tracing apps at Privacy Company in The Hague.

Contact tracing apps have emerged as a response to slowing down the spread of a highly contagious virus that kills people, especially the most vulnerable members of society. Unsurprisingly, the spread of Covid-19 has been recognised and treated as a major public health emergency. Accordingly, a ‘test, track and trace’ strategy has been deemed a fundamental part of the process for reopening national economies and the borders of many European countries. Without much critique, a ‘privacy-preserving movement has emerged, dominating the way we think about how best to respond to a public health crisis brought on by the spread of COVID-19. In line with its long-standing commitments to democracy and fundamental rights, various Member States of the EU, including the Netherlands are counting on its citizens to act responsibly, download an app or make changes to one’s phone’s operating system, and voluntarily abide by any notifications.

eLaw students, Merve Topkoru, Maria Spinelli, Vanya Rakesh, Vadehei Shankar, and Mert Ozul, were selected for a work experience programme at Privacy Company based in The Hague researching various national approaches to releasing contact-tracing apps. Once downloaded in citizens’ mobile phones, these apps bring efficiencies and increase the success of test, track, and trace programmes. They can notify authorities when the user is infected, provide information to citizens and warn users automatically when they have contacted an infected user. These apps aim to track individuals’ health information, their social contacts, location data, or proximity information with other app users. Therefore, they have a severe intrusion on the right to private life and they trigger the protection of the right to personal data protection. Although the use of digital apps for contact tracing is praised with these objectives, this technological solutionism also creates privacy concerns for individuals. Used for wrong purposes under opaque practices, these apps might become surveillance weapons and turn the world into a zombie-like digital welfare dystopia.  Furthermore, the technical success of the apps, to date, has not been proven.

Merve Topkoru, one of the students selected to participate in the programme, commented: “We were really lucky that the programme was not canceled due to COVID-19 and we could extend our knowledge in practice (remotely under safe conditions). Unexpectedly, the pandemic gave us a very interesting research topic: the privacy implications of digital contact tracing apps. The research process was very dynamic as governments all around the world were launching a new app almost every week. Furthermore, the people at Privacy Company were very friendly, eager to help, and interested in our work. It is an experience every Law and Digital Technologies student should check out”.

Arnold Roosendaal, Director of Privacy Company stated: It is always great to experience the enthusiasm and insights of the students when they work on their assignment at Privacy Company. We enjoy the fresh vibe and are happy to offer the students a view of our daily work. Online working made it even more feasible to offer ad hoc opportunities to exchange ideas with our team and to make use of their expertise.

Marlies Blokland, Privacy Company’s project liaison officer, added: “We were very happy to have such a great group of E-law students, joining Privacy Company for the annual summer assignment. Even though these are strange days, working remotely all the time. We hope everyone feels welcome!”

Dr Mark Leiser, Assistant Professor in Law and Digital Technologies and organiser of the clinic that concluded the programme, noted: “We are ever grateful to our partners, Privacy Company, for another successful work experience programme with our students, especially in challenging times due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our students will have gained valuable experience working on one of the most pressing issues in the field of data protection and privacy and working remotely. Our students have definitely benefitted from the experience yet again”.

“A successful postgraduate programme is not just about the delivery of classes in law and digital technology. It will open doors to students that remain closed otherwise. Our relationship with Privacy Company has again delivered a fantastic opportunity for students to gain real world experience putting their studies in data protection law into practice. Moving from the classroom to the office is part of the eLaw experience.”

This is the third year that the work experience programme has taken place. Students on the Advanced Master's programme are invited to apply for a handful of positions in one of the most innovative and forward-thinking data protection consultancies in the Netherlands.

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