“The classical phone call is the safest”

Most of our meetings have turned into video calls – even doctor’s appointments. But how safe is that? Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius (47), professor of law at the Radbound University Nijmegen, explains how powerful data can be.
By Annemarie Andre

(c) Dirk Gillissen

A lot of physicians or psychologists started offering online services after the outbreak of COVID-19. What would you advise patients, who want to start with online consultations? 

I think that the classical phone call is safest, but I would definitely ask your health provider or doctor, whether he or she is sure that the video calling service is privacy-friendly. If not, I would advise that you ask for a classical phone call. Telecommunication companies have used very strict privacy rules since the beginning. In the current situation, it is still the case that we have extra strict privacy rules in Europe for telecommunication companies, stricter than for video calling services. However, I don’t think that the responsibility of choosing a privacy-friendly video communication platform should lie on the patients. If you call a doctor, you may be in need, so it would be completely unfair to require that the patient thinks about it. It must be doctors, who should take the responsibilities. 

What are the risks of online consultations?

The service provider knows how often you call your doctor, which is a privacy-sensitive matter of course. Depending on the technology it uses, the provider may be able to read your messages and listen to your calls. Luckily, telecommunication companies have a long tradition of treating such data fairly and in a privacy-friendly way as they are heavily regulated.

Why do we as citizens need privacy laws?

Now we dare to look for health information on the internet because we hope that our searching behavior remains confidential. So, if you think you may have cancer, be pregnant or that you may have a sexually transmitted disease, you can look online for information without being too scared that information will end up in the hands of your health insurer or a marketing company. And that’s one of the reasons why privacy-related laws are so important. It ensures that we are free to read what we want online. Libraries have a long tradition of keeping reading habits private and we should be able to have the same expectations online. We still need better enforcement, because on the internet there’s a lot of online tracking going on. Ideally, privacy laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would help to give us trust that what we search for on the internet is not used against us.

How could it affect me, if I just search “Am I pregnant or not” on the internet?

A malicious company could advertise jobs only to women who don’t want children if the company wants to avoid hiring women who go on maternity leave. Or a company could decide that they don’t want to advertise jobs to anybody who has ever looked for information about drugs or addiction online. The fact that you searched online for information on addiction could theoretically end up in the hands of an insurer, who will sell you insurance for more money than others. You could think of many dystopian examples.

Could data also be used for discrimination against minorities?

If I was a Muslim in India looking for a website with Muslim news, or a homosexual in Poland visiting a website about homosexuality, you might feel uncomfortable. Even if the government never uses that information against you, the fear that they could is already bad enough. If the fear of being discriminated against has the effect that you don’t want to read certain information, your freedom is restricted. Online tracking can thus have a chilling effect on people, regardless of how the data are used.


Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius works at the Institute for Computing and Information Sciences at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. Before that, he worked as a researcher at the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam for over six years. His academic interests lie in privacy, surveillance, freedom of expression, personal details, online tracking, and intelligence services, and discrimination. He carries out research into online data and privacy.