Irene Kamara is a PhD researcher at TILT and affiliate researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (LSTS). She follows a joint doctorate track supported by the Tilburg University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Her PhD topic examines the interplay between standardisation and the regulation of the right to protection of personal data.

Prior to joining academia, Irene had been working as an attorney at law before the Court of Appeal in Athens. She also did traineeships at the European Data Protection Supervisor and the European Standardisation Organisations CEN and CENELEC. In 2016, she collaborated with the European Commission as external expert evaluator of H2020 proposals on societal security.

Irene is selected as a member of the ENISA Experts List for assisting in the implementation of the Annual ENISA Work Programme. In 2015, Irene received a best paper award and a young author recognition certificate from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations Agency for standardisation.

– Even though you had a great start at your professional career as a lawyer, you decided to follow a PhD. Your dedication to academic research has led to a successful path with many interesting publications. Looking back, how hard was to make this decision though, and what advice would you give to people facing this dilemma?

Indeed, I was working for several years as an attorney at law before the Court of Appeals in Athens. Legal practice offered me valuable lessons, among others how different law in the books from law on the ground is, working efficiently under pressure, contact with clients, and task prioritisation. Those are lessons I still carry with me in my academic career.

I was always fascinated by data protection, privacy, confidentiality of information in electronic communications and I decided to take a career break for a year and follow the TILT’s master program on law and technology. I feel that as a practicing lawyer you always need to learn and evolve.

Tilburg’s Law & Tech master program, as you know, offers courses on privacy & data protection, intellectual property, regulation of technologies, e-commerce and gives the student the opportunity to become an expert in cutting-edge topics. After the master, I was offered a researcher position at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel under the mentorship of prof. Paul De Hert. At VUB, I decided I wanted to do a PhD. I realised that via research you have the opportunity to reach out to a bigger audience than merely your clients as a legal practitioner, and adopt a pro-active approach to problem solving, than a re-active one which is often the case in legal practice.

Of course what weighed in my decision was also the quality of the working environment and conditions and the high standards in research. Both TILT/Tilburg University and LSTS/VUB have been wonderful homes, allowing me to evolve and progress as a professional, by actively encouraging independent thinking and inter-disciplinary research.

To colleagues facing such dilemma, I would say dare to take a risk and leave your comfort zone. Test yourself with a research visit at an institution, writing an academic paper and presenting it at a conference. And keep in mind that academic life is not an easy one, either. And my advice is to choose an academic institution and a mentor that recognises and appreciates your hard work.

– You have participated as a speaker in panels at top level conferences and events all around the world. The Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection Conference at Brussels, and the IGLP Conference at Harvard Law School are some of them. How did all these experiences shape your research and why is it important for researchers to exchange thoughts with other experts in a global level?

I believe that participation in conferences is a necessary component for every scholar. Not only for sharing and exchanging knowledge, but also for validating and enriching your research results, cross-fertilising ideas. I am against the old-school approach of researchers, especially PhDs, isolated in an office and writing up articles. While there is probably scientific theoretical value in the outcomes of such research as well, the result will most likely lack societal impact.

I usually select the conferences depending on the audience from which I would like to get feedback for my research. The IGLP Harvard conference last year was a great opportunity to expose my thoughts to a global law audience from literally all around the world. I met so many academics being interested in my research or working on complementary topics. IGLP stands exactly for this: investing in creating a stable network of people eager to exchange their ideas globally and assist each other.

Besides such conferences, I am lucky that my home institutions, TILT and LSTS organise the annual CPDP conferences and the bi-annual TILTing conferences, to which I participate. Those are very good examples for broadening one’s research interests.

– Your PhD topic examines the interplay between standardisation and the regulation of the right to protection of personal data. Tell us more about this field and the projects you are working on.

My current research field is human rights with a focus on data protection and privacy, regulatory instruments such as standards, certifications, and codes of conduct, and new technologies. My PhD looks at how soft law, such as technical standards, interacts with human rights regulation, with a focus on personal data protection. While there is a visible regulatory sphere in regulating data protection, that is the Union’s secondary legislation, there is also a set of rules embedded in technical standards that is not so visible. Such rules might translate legal requirements to technical controls or prescribe a set of policies and behaviors to controllers and processors that go beyond the letter of the law.

I am researching this interplay and the various roles standardisation might play in regulating data protection. Other than my PhD project, an interesting project I have been working on as a principal researcher is the study on certification of Art. 42 and 43 of the General Data Protection Regulation for DG Justice & Consumers of the European Commission. Last year, I also collaborated with ENISA on a study on privacy standards. That was an exciting project. I worked together with standardisation experts, civil society and industry to produce the report.

– You are member of various important organizations. One of them is the Netherlands Network for Human Rights Research (NNHRR). In the Netherlands, organizations, such as Bits of Freedom, and universities, such as the Tilburg University have an active role as regards the promotion and protection of Human Rights in the digital age. What do you think about the situation in Greece in this field? Can civil society organizations and academia, work together to push for positive outcomes?

Although barely in the spotlight, the role of NGOs and academia is fundamental for defending societal interests.

There are also some exceptions like the recent CNIL fine on Google.  As far as I am concerned, so far there hasn’t been a coordinated initiative fighting for digital rights in Greece. I see Homo Digitalis as an initiative aiming to fill this gap, by not only informing the broader audience through awareness raising campaigns but also flagging false and unfair practices, participating in public consultations, strategic litigation.

– You have joint publications with great academics in the field, such as Paul de Hert and Eleni Kosta. If you could share an advice with young researchers reading this interview, what would that be?

Paul and Eleni are both my PhD supervisors and have been great mentors in my academic career so far. I have certainly learned a lot from collaborating with them.

I would advise new researchers to share and exchange ideas with colleagues, take risks in exploring new fields, set goals and work hard to achieve them. And also very important: don’t be afraid to aim high.