Ethical and legal foundations for the use of personal data

Digital ethics Ethical and legal foundations for the use of personal data

Published on 06.09.2021 by Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl, Head of the BFH Centre for the Digital Society

The use of personal data often violates regulatory provisions, or is at best ethically questionable. That’s why a clear, responsible and principled approach is of utmost importance.

There is no such thing as legally compliant, context-free personal data processing. Wherever data is collected, stored and processed, it is important to know the context. Collecting personal data for as yet unknown purposes is ethically questionable and often also illegal. The key basic principle for responsible handling of personal data is that it should always be appropriate to the context of use. This means that neither too much nor too little data may be used, and the quality of the data must be sufficiently high for the processing purposes.

As a general rule, data processing systems should be set up in such a way that technical misuse is virtually impossible. Technical development should also be planned to anticipate where new forms of misuse may arise. In practice, however, the potential for IT to provide technical protection for personal data is often not exploited, because it seems too expensive or it is assumed that decision-makers do not understand the technical concepts. For this reason, responsible handling of personal data also includes professional training for managers as to the dangers involved and what is technically possible and appropriate in order to minimize these dangers.

In addition to technical protection, organizational protection measures should also be taken – as a supplement to, and not a replacement for, technical protection! In particular, regular checks should be carried out in order to assess whether data protection violations have occurred, or whether they may be possible in the future with little criminal effort due to technical progress.

In the case of innovation projects that make use of particularly sensitive personal data, it is also necessary to have complete legal clarity beforehand. In case of doubt, more rather than fewer technical and organizational protective measures should be implemented. Furthermore, you should be prepared to explain your own approach via communication channels if it becomes a point of discussion in the media.

Apart from protecting privacy, avoiding discrimination is essential from an ethical perspective. Personal data can be used for very questionable discriminatory purposes, or it can be used in a factually inadequate way. Both are possible even if the data for the parties concerned is of the highest quality. Potential causes for improper use of data are design flaws and a bias in the empirical data used. Design flaws can occur in algorithms, heuristics, programming, system architecture, human-machine interface design, data processing practices and embedding in business processes. Therefore, the only way to prevent discrimination is through holistic quality management involving all stakeholders.


Due to the current situation, Connecta Bern will again be held as a digital event in 2021. Connecta is renowned for shining a light on the diverse nature of digitization, and this year will be no different, with content presented across the three formats of Connecta Blog, Connecta TV and Connecta Talk. Find out more here:


Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl, Head of the BFH Centre for the Digital Society

Reinhard Riedl is a mathematician, computer scientist and economist. He researches the digital transformation of the state, healthcare, agriculture, sports, the arts and legal informatics. He also advises companies on transformation processes.

Portrait Prof. Dr. Reinhard Riedl

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