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New EU Data Protection Law Could Affect People Who Take Pictures With Their Phones


Tomorrow a wide-reaching data protection law goes into effect in the European Union. It boosts people's right to privacy like never before partly by threatening fines of up to $23 1/2 million. The aim is to stop companies from exploiting personal data. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the law could lead to problems for people who like to snap photos with their phones.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: A popular spot for picture-taking here in the German capital is the Berlin Wall exhibit at Potsdamer Platz.


NELSON: Given the crowds, you inevitably will end up with a few strangers in your photos. That could be a problem after Friday when an EU law known as the General Data Protection Regulation goes fully into effect, especially if you are taking pictures in European countries that haven't sought an exemption to include photography.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ready? One, two, three.

NELSON: Lars Rieck is a Hamburg lawyer who specializes in photography law.

LARS RIECK: Street photography in my mind will have a big problem now.

NELSON: Rieck says the new protection of individual privacy means that anyone who appears in a photograph taken in the EU has an absolute right to refuse to be in that photo, especially if those pictures end up on social media. And it's up to the person taking the picture to figure out whether subjects want to be in the photo or not.

RIECK: If you have the consent of the person on your picture, there's no problem. You can use the picture. But this consent has to be informed, as they say. So you have to tell the person in advance what you want to do with the picture. And also, a big drawback is consent can be taken back anytime.

NELSON: Proponents of the law acknowledge that getting informed consent could prove cumbersome for individuals who like to take pictures with their smartphones and post them online. But the point of the law is to protect people's privacy, says Berlin legislator Stefan Ziller. He's the Green Party's expert on digitalization.

STEFAN ZILLER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Ziller predicts that despite the new law, photography will largely continue to be protected as freedom of speech or artistic expression. Wojciech Wiewiorowski, who is the assistant European data protection supervisor, adds that fears of draconian prosecution are overblown.

WOJCIECH WIEWIOROWSKI: You should not expect that the data protection authorities will sit on 26th of May and they will start the witch hunting and they will start to find out whom to punish first.

NELSON: He says there are things people who like to snap photos can do to protect themselves, simple things like taking into account how other people feel.

WIEWIOROWSKI: And - well, I have a very good example of that in my family. I'm quite open in presenting my pictures online, but my wife doesn't like it. And I should respect it, respect it when I do the family pictures.

NELSON: Back in Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, British tourist Catherine Pilling is nervous about what the new law will mean for her vacation photos.

CATHERINE PILLING: Well, it seems a bit over-the-top, really. Yeah, I could understand when it's people's actual personal data and written down information. But, yeah, photographs - yeah, seems - yeah, very silly.

NELSON: She waits for a quiet moment to snap a picture of the Berlin Wall remnants so that no strangers end up in the frame. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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