Category: Countries

EPRS publishes report on post-Brexit EU-UK Data Transfer Mechanisms

20. April 2021

On April 9th, 2021, the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) published a report on data transfers in the private sector between the EU and the U.K. following Brexit.

The report reviews and assesses trade dealings, adequacy challenges and transfer instruments under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The report is intended to help take regulatory and business decisions, and in the Press Release the European Parliament stated that “a clear understanding of the state of play and future prospects for EU-UK transfers of personal data is indispensable”.

The report provides in-depth analysis of an adequacy decision for the UK as a viable long-term solution for data flows between the U.K. and the EU, also considering possible mechanisms for data transfer in the potential absence of an adequacy decision, such as Standard Contractual Clauses, Binding Corporate Rules, codes of conduct, and certification mechanism.

In this analysis the EPRS also sheds light on adequacy concerns such as U.K. surveillance laws and practices, shortcomings of the implementation of the GDPR, weak enforcement of data protection laws, and wavering commitment to EU data protection standards.

As part of its conclusion, the EPRS stated that the European Data Protection Board’s (‘EDPB’) opinion on the draft decision, which has just been published (please see our blogpost here), will likely scrutinise the Commission’s approach and provide recommendations on next steps.

EDPB adopts opinion on draft UK adequacy decisions

16. April 2021

In accordance with its obligation under Article 70 (1) (s) GDP, on April 13th, 2021, the European Data Protection Board (“EDPB”) adopted its opinions on the EU Commissions (“EC”) draft UK adequacy decision (please see our blog post). “Opinion 14/2021” is based on the GDPR and assesses both general data protection aspects and the public authority access to personal data transferred from the EEA for law enforcement and national security purposes contained in the draft adequacy decision, a topic the EC also discussed in detail. At the same time, the EDPB also issued “Opinion 15/2021” on the transfer of personal data under the Law Enforcement Directive (LED).

The EDPB notes that there is a strong alignment between the EU and the UK data protection regimes, especially in the principles relating to the processing of personal data. It expressly praises the fact that the adequacy decision is to apply for a limited period, as the EDPB also sees the danger that the UK could change its data protection laws. Andrea Jelinek, EDPB Chair, is quoted:

“The UK data protection framework is largely based on the EU data protection framework. The UK Data Protection Act 2018 further specifies the application of the GDPR in UK law, in addition to transposing the LED, as well as granting powers and imposing duties on the national data protection supervisory authority, the ICO. Therefore, the EDPB recognises that the UK has mirrored, for the most part, the GDPR and LED in its data protection framework and when analysing its law and practice, the EDPB identified many aspects to be essentially equivalent. However, whilst laws can evolve, this alignment should be maintained. So we welcome the Commission’s decision to limit the granted adequacy in time and the intention to closely monitor developments in the UK.”

But the EDPB also highlights areas of concern that need to be further monitored by the EC.

1. The immigration exemption, which restricts the rights of those data subjects affected.

2. How the transfer of personal data from the EEA to the UK could undermine EU data protection rules, for example on basis of future UK adequacy decisions.

3. Access to personal data by public authorities is given a lot of space in the opinion. For example, the Opinion analyses in detail the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 and related case law. The EDPB welcomes the numerous oversight and redress mechanisms in the UK but identifies a number of issues that need “further clarification and/or oversight”, namely bulk searches, independent assessment and oversight of the use of automated processing tools, and the safeguards provided under UK law when it comes to disclosure abroad, particularly with regard to the application of national security exemptions.

In summary, this EDPB opinion does not put any obstacles in the way of an adequacy deciding and recognises that there are many areas where the UK and EU regimes converge. Nevertheless, it highlights very clearly that there are deficiencies, particularly in the UK’s system for monitoring national security, which need to be reviewed and kept under review.

As for the next steps, the draft UK adequacy decisions will now be assessed by representatives of the EU Member States under the “comitology procedure“. The Commission can then adopt the draft UK adequacy decisions. A bridging period during which free data transfer to the UK is permitted even without an adequacy decision ends in June 2021 (please see our blog post).

Facebook data leak affects more than 500 million users

7. April 2021

Confidential data of 533 million Facebook users has surfaced in a forum for cybercriminals. A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that the data came from a leak in 2019.

The leaked data includes Facebook usernames and full name, date of birth, phone number, location and biographical information, and in some cases, the email address of the affected users. Business Insider has verified the leaked data through random sampling. Even though some of the data may be outdated, the leak poses risks if, for example, email addresses or phone numbers are used for hacking. The leak was made public by the IT security firm Hudson Rock. Their employees noticed that the data sets were offered by a bot for money in a hacking forum. The data set was then offered publicly for free and thus made accessible to everyone.

The US magazine Wired points out that Facebook is doing more to confuse than to help clarify. First, Facebook referred to an earlier security vulnerability in 2019, which we already reported. This vulnerability was patched in August last year. Later, a blog post from a Facebook product manager confirmed that it was a major security breach. However, the data had not been accessed through hacking, but rather the exploitation of a legitimate Facebook feature. In addition, the affected data was so old that GDPR and U.S. privacy laws did not apply, he said. In the summer of 2019, Facebook reached an agreement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay a $5 billion fine for all data breaches before June 12, 2019. According to Wired, the current database is not congruent with the one at issue at the time, as the most recent Facebook ID in it is from late May 2019.

Users can check whether they are affected by the data leak via the website HaveIBeenPwned.

EU and South Korea complete adequacy talks

6. April 2021

On March 30th, 2021, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Chairperson of the Personal Information Protection Commission of the Republic of Korea Yoon Jong In announced the successful conclusion of adequacy talks between the EU und the Republic of Korea (“South Korea”). These adequacy discussions began in 2017, and there was already initially a high level of convergence between the EU and the Republic of Korea on data protection issues, which has been further enhanced by additional safeguards to further strengthen the level of protection in South Korea. Recently, South Korea’s Personal Information Protection Act (“PIPA”) took effect and the investigative and enforcement powers of South Korea’s data protection authority, the Personal Information Protection Commission (“PIPC”), were strengthened.

In the GDPR, this adequacy decision is based on Art. 45 GDPR. Article 45(3) GDPR empowers the EU Commission to adopt an implementing act to determine that a non-EU country ensures an “adequate level of protection”. This means a level of protection for personal data that is substantially equivalent to the level of protection within the EU. Once it has been determined that a non-EU country provides an “adequate level of protection”, transfers of personal data from the EU to that non-EU country can take place without further requirements. South Korea will be the 13th country to which personal data may be transferred on the basis of an adequacy decision. An adequacy decision covering both commercial providers and the public sector will enable free and secure data flows between the EU and the Republic of Korea and it will complement the EU-Republic of Korea Free Trade Agreement.

Until the free flow of data can occur, the EU Commission must initiate the procedure for adopting its adequacy finding. In this procedure, the European Data Protection Board will issue an opinion and a committee composed of representatives of the EU member states must agree. The EU Commission may then adopt the adequacy decision.

ICO plans to update guidance on anonymisation and pseudonymisation

31. March 2021

The ICO is planning to update their anonymisation and pseudonymisation guidance as blogged by Ali Shah, ICO’s Head of Technology Policy on March 19th, 2021. He emphasizes the important role of sharing personal data in a digital economy, citing the healthcare and financial sector as examples. Thus, in healthcare, data could improve patient care, and in the financial sector, it could help prevent money laundering and protect individuals from fraud.

Last year, the ICO published their recent Data Sharing Code of Practice. The intention of the Data Sharing Code, according to Elizabeth Denham CBE, Information Commissioner, is “to give individuals, businesses and organisations the confidence to share data in a fair, safe and transparent way (…)”. Shah calls the Data Sharing Code a milestone and not a conclusion stating that ICO’s ongoing work shall lead to more clarity and advice in regard to lawful data sharing.

He names several key topics that are going to be explored by the ICO in regard to updating the anonymisation and pseudonymisation guidance. Among others, you will find the following:

  • “Anonymisation and the legal framework – legal, policy and governance issues around the application of anonymisation in the context of data protection law”
  • “Guidance on pseudonymisation techniques and best practices”
  • “Accountability and governance requirements in the context of anonymisation and pseudonymisation, including data protection by design and DPIAs”
  • “Guidance on privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) and their role in safe data sharing”
  • “Technological solutions – exploring possible options and best practices for implementation”

It is to be welcomed that apparently not only the legal side will be explored, but also technical aspects should play their role, as designing and implementing systems with privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) and data protection by design in mind has the potential to contribute to compliance with data protection laws already at the technical level and therefore at an early stage of processing.

The ICO plans to publish each chapter of the guidance asking the industry, academia and other key stakeholders to present their point of view on the topic encouraging them to give insights and feedback in order for the ICO to get a better understanding where the guidance can be targeted most effectively.

Microsoft Exchange Target of Hacks

29. March 2021

Microsoft’s Exchange Servers are exposed to an ever-increasing number of attacks. This is the second major cyberattack on Microsoft in recent months, following the so-called SolarWinds hack (please see our blog post). The new attacks are based on vulnerabilities that have been in the code for some time but have only recently been discovered.

In a blog post published on March 2nd, 2021, Microsoft explains the hack and a total of four found vulnerabilities. The first vulnerability allows attackers to gain access to a Microsoft Exchange Server, the second vulnerability allows them to execute their code on the system, and the third and fourth vulnerabilities allow the hacker write access to arbitrary files on the server. Microsoft Exchange Server versions 2019, 2016, 2013 and 2010 are affected, and Microsoft released a security update for all of them on March 2nd, even though support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 ended in October 2020.

Reportedly, Microsoft was informed about the vulnerability in January. Since then, a growing number of hacker groups have started to use the exploit. The initial campaign is attributed to HAFNIUM, a group believed to be state-sponsored and operating out of China. According to Microsoft, the vulnerabilities have been in the code for many years without being discovered. Only recently has Microsoft become aware of these vulnerabilities and begun working on them. Microsoft shared information on the vulnerability through the Microsoft Active Protections Program (Mapp), where they share information with a group of 80 security companies. The attacks began shortly after Microsoft began working to resolve the vulnerabilities. There are many similarities between the code Microsoft shared through Mapp and the code the attackers are using.

In an article about a recently published One-Click Exchange On-premises Mitigation Tool (EOMT), Microsoft developers describe how admins can secure Exchange servers against the current attacks within a very short amount of time. The tool only serves as an initial protective measure. For comprehensive protection, available security updates must be installed. In addition, it must be checked whether the hackers have already exploited existing gaps to leave behind backdoors and malware. This is because the updates close the gaps, but do not eliminate an infection that has already occurred. Hackers often do not use gaps immediately for an attack, but to gain access later, for example for large-scale blackmail.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), organizations affected by an attack on personal data must, in certain circumstances, report such an incident to the relevant supervisory authority and possibly to the affected individuals. Even after a successful patch, it should be kept in mind that affected organizations were vulnerable in the meantime. Pursuant to Art. 33 of the GDPR, system compromises that may affect personal data and result in a risk to data subjects must be notified to the competent supervisory authority. For such a notification, the time of discovery of the security breach, the origin of the security breach, the possible scope of the personal data affected, and the first measures taken must be documented.

The state of Virginia is second state in the USA to enact major Data Protection Legislation

17. March 2021

On March 2nd, 2021, Virginia’s Governor, Ralph Northam, signed the Consumer Data Protection Act into law without any further amendments.

This makes the state of Virginia the second US state to enact a major privacy law, next to California’s CCPA enacted in 2018. At the point of the law passing to the Senate, there was debate that the bills were flawed as they are not including a private right of action and leaving all enforcement to the Office of the Attorney General. This caused some senators to oppose the bills, however it was ultimately passed by a vote of 32 to 7. The Consumer Data Protection Act will take effect on January 1st, 2023.

The bill establishes a comprehensive framework for controlling and processing personal data of Virginia residents. In addition, it provides Virginia residents with certain rights with respect to their personal data, including rights of access, correction, deletion, portability, the right to opt out of certain processing operations, as well as the right to appeal a controller’s decision regarding a rights request. The bill further states requirements relating to the principles of data minimization, processing limitations, data security, non-discrimination, third-party contracting and data protection assessments, as well as imposes certain requirements directly on entities who act as processors of data on behalf of a controller.

However, the law also includes a number of exemptions at entity level, such as exemptions for financial institutions subject to the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and also includes some data or context specific exemptions, such as an exemption for HR-related data processing.

The Attorney General’s office, as the enforcing entity, has to provide 30 days’ notice of any violation and allow an opportunity for the controller to cure any violation. In case a controller does not oblige and leaves the violation uncured, the Attorney General is able to file an action seeking $7,500 per violation.

European Commission publishes draft UK adequacy decisions

25. February 2021

On February 19th, 2021, the European Commission (EC) has published the draft of two adequacy decisions for the transfer of personal data to the United Kingdom (UK), one under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the second for the Law Enforcement Directive. If approved, the decisions would confer adequacy status on the UK and ensure that personal data from the EU can continue to flow freely to the UK. In the EC’s announcement launching the process to adopt the newly drafted adequacy decisions Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, is quoted:

We have thoroughly checked the privacy system that applies in the UK after it has left the EU. Now European Data Protection Authorities will thoroughly examine the draft texts. EU citizens’ fundamental right to data protection must never be compromised when personal data travel across the Channel. The adequacy decisions, once adopted, would ensure just that.

In the GDPR, this adequacy decision is based on Art. 45 GDPR. Article 45(3) GDPR empowers the EU Commission to adopt an implementing act to determine that a non-EU country ensures an “adequate level of protection”. This means a level of protection for personal data that is substantially equivalent to the level of protection within the EU. Once it has been determined that a non-EU country provides an “adequate level of protection”, transfers of personal data from the EU to that non-EU country can take place without further requirements. In the UK, the processing of personal data is governed by the “UK GDPR” and the Data Protection Act 2018, which are based on the EU GDPR. The UK is and has committed to remain part of the European Convention on Human Rights and “Convention 108” of the Council of Europe. “Convention 108” is a binding treaty under international law to protect individuals from abuses in the electronic processing of personal data, and in particular provides for restrictions on cross-border data flows where data is to be transferred to states where no comparable protection exists.

The GDPR adequacy decision draft addresses several areas of concern. One of these is the power of intelligence services in the UK. In this respect, the draft focuses on legal bases, restrictions and safeguards for the collection of information for national security purposes. It also details the oversight structure over the intelligence services and the remedies available to those affected. Another aspect discussed is the limitation of data subjects’ rights in the context of UK immigration law. The EC concludes that interference with individuals’ fundamental rights is limited to what is strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose and that there is effective legal protection against such interference. As the UK GDPR is based on the GDPR and therefore the UK privacy laws should provide an adequate level of protection for data subjects, the main risks for EU data subjects do not lie in the current status of these laws but in possible changes of these laws in the future. For this reason, the EU Commission has built a fixed period of validity into the draft adequacy decision. If adopted, this decision would be valid for a period of four years and the adequacy finding could be extended for a further four years if the level of protection in the UK remains adequate. However, this extension would not be automatic, but subject to a thorough review. This draft marks the first time that the EU has imposed a time limit on an adequacy decision. Other adequacy decisions are subject to monitoring and regular review but are not time-limited by default.

The UK government welcomed the EC’s draft in a statement, while also calling on the EU to “swiftly complete” the process for adopting and formalizing the adequacy decisions, as the “bridging mechanism” will only remain in force until June 30th. Under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the EU and UK agreed on a transition period of up to six months from January 1st, 2021, during which the UK is treated as an adequate jurisdiction (please see our blog post). The draft adequacy decisions address the flow of data from the EU to the UK. The flow of data from the UK to the EU is governed by UK legislation that has applied since 1 January 2021. The UK has decided that the EU ensures an adequate level of protection and that data can therefore flow freely from the UK to the EU.

Next, the non-binding opinion of the European Data Protection Board is sought (Art. 70 GDPR). After hearing the opinion of the European Data Protection Board, the representatives of the member states must then confirm the draft in the so-called comitology procedure. This procedure is used when the EC is given the power to implement legal acts that lay down conditions for the uniform application of a law. A series of procedures ensure that EU countries have a say in the implementing act. After the comitology procedure, the EC is free to adopt the drafts.

Clubhouse Data Protection issues

28. January 2021

Clubhouse is a new social networking app by the US company Alpha Exploration Co. available for iOS devices. Registered users can open rooms for others to talk about various topics. Participation is possible both as a speaker and as a mere listener. These rooms can be available for the public or as closed groups. The moderators speak live in the rooms and the listeners can then join the virtual room. Participants are initially muted and can be unmuted by the moderators to talk. In addition, the moderators can also mute the participants or exclude them from the respective room. As of now, new users need to be invited by other users, the popularity of these invitations started to rise in autumn 2020 when US celebrities started to use the app. With increasing popularity also in the EU, Clubhouse has come under criticism from a data protection perspective.

As mentioned Clubhouse can only be used upon an invitation. To use the option to invite friends, users must share their address book with Clubhouse. In this way, Alpha Exploration can collect personal data from contacts who have not previously consented to the processing of their data and who do not use the app. Not only Alpha Exploration, but also users may be acting unlawfully when they give the app access to their contacts. The user may also be responsible for the data processing associated with the sharing of address books. Therefore, it is not only the responsibility of Alpha Exploration, but also of the user to ensure that consent has been obtained from the contacts whose personal data is being processed. From a data protection perspective, it is advisable not to grant the Clubhouse app access to this data unless the consent of the respective data subjects has been obtained and ideally documented. Currently, this data is transferred to US servers without the consent of the data subjects in the said address books. Furthermore, it is not apparent in what form and for what purposes the collected contact and account information of third parties is processed in the USA.

Under Clubouse’s Terms of Service, and in many cases according to several national laws, users are prohibited from recording or otherwise storing conversations without the consent of all parties involved. Nevertheless, the same Terms of Service include the sentence “By using the service, you consent to having your audio temporarily recorded when you speak in a room.” According to Clubhouse’s Privacy Policy, these recordings are used to punish violations of the Terms of Service, the Community Guidelines and legal regulations. The data is said to be deleted when the room in question is closed without any violations having been reported. Again, consent to data processing should be treated as the general rule. This consent must be so-called informed consent. In view of the fact that the scope and purpose of the storage are not apparent and are vaguely formulated, there are doubts about this. Checking one’s own platform for legal violations is in principle, if not a legal obligation in individual cases, at least a so-called legitimate interest (Art. 6 (1) (f) GDPR) of the platform operator. As long as recordings are limited to this, they are compliant with the GDPR. The platform operator who records the conversations is primarily responsible for this data processing. However, users who use Clubhouse for conversations with third parties may be jointly responsible, even though they do not record themselves. This is unlikely to play a major role in the private sphere, but all the more so if the use is in a business context.

It is suspected that Clubhouse creates shadow profiles in its own network. These are profiles for people who appear in the address books of Clubhouse users but are not themselves registered with Clubhouse. For this reason, Clubhouse considers numbers like “Mobile-Box” to be well-connected potential users. So far, there is no easy way to object to Clubhouse’s creation of shadow profiles that include name, number, and potential contacts.

Clubhouse’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policy do not mention the GDPR. There is also no address for data protection information requests in the EU. However, this is mandatory, as personal data of EU citizens is also processed. In addition, according to Art. 14 GDPR, EU data subjects must be informed about how their data is processed. This information must be provided to data subjects before their personal data is processed. That is, before the data subject is invited via Clubhouse and personal data is thereby stored on Alpha Exploration’s servers. This information does not take place. There must be a simple opt-out option, it is questionable whether one exists. According to the GDPR, companies that process data of European citizens must also designate responsible persons for this in Europe. So far, it is not apparent that Clubhouse even has such data controllers in Europe.

The german “Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband” (“VZBV”), the german federate Consumer Organisation, has issued a written warning (in German) to Alpha Exploration, complaining that Clubhouse is operated without the required imprint and that the terms of use and privacy policy are only available in English, not in German as required. The warning includes a penalty-based cease-and-desist declaration relating to Alpha Exploration’s claim of the right to extensive use of the uploaded contact information. Official responses from European data protection authorities regarding Clubhouse are currently not available. The main data protection authority in this case is the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

So far, it appears that Clubhouse’s data protection is based solely on the CCPA and not the GDPR. Business use of Clubhouse within the scope of the GDPR should be done with extreme caution, if at all.

Hackers access Microsoft source codes

7. January 2021

In December 2020 cybersecurity firm FireEye reported that it had been attacked by what they called a “highly sophisticated cyber threat actor”, during which copies of its red team tool kit were stolen. Also in December, FireEye disclosed that it discovered attacks on SolarWinds’ tool “Orion” while investigating its own security breach. In a SEC filing, SolarWinds said up to 18,000 of 33,000 Orion customers may have been affected. The attacks may have begun in early 2020.

A group believed to be state-sponsored used contaminated updates for the “Orion” network management software. They accessed a SolarWinds system used to update Orion and from there inserted malicious code into legitimate software updates that were then distributed to customers. The affected versions are 2019.4 through 2020.2.1, which were released between March and June 2020. It is still unclear how the attackers initially gained access to SolarWinds’ network. Security researcher Vinoth Kumar stated on Twitter he contacted SolarWinds in 2019 regarding an FTP access uploaded to GitHub in 2018. Using the password “solarwinds123,” he was able to upload a file to the SolarWinds server as proof of the vulnerability.

Agencies and companies that have been penetrated by the Orion software include the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Nuclear Security Administration, parts of the Pentagon, Belkin, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, and Nvidia.
The FBI and other U.S. security agencies issued a joint statement calling the attack “significant and ongoing”. Also, agencies and companies in other countries such as Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates were affected.

So far, it is unclear what damage, if any, was caused by the attacks and what data was accessed. According to reports, in some cases, internal communications were accessed and various documents were copied, with documents relating to ongoing product development, in particular, attracting the attackers’ interest. In an interview published by the U.S. State Department, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo claimed Russia was responsible for the attack.

“This was a very significant effort, and I think it’s the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

Among those affected, Microsoft is being most viral regarding the hack. In a blog post published on December 31, the company even admitted that the hackers had access to its source codes. According to that post, they were able to view the code but not modify it. Still, this could pose a significant security risk, as the attackers can now study the software’s architecture and look for possible entry points. Microsoft won’t reveal which tool’s source codes the attackers had access to. It also identified more than 40 of its own customers who were targeted.
Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote:

“This is not just an attack on specific targets but on the trust and reliability of the world’s critical infrastructure in order to advance one nation’s intelligence agency.”

This cyber-attack shows the importance of strong cybersecurity for every company and private user, as even tech-giants and fundamental U.S. authorities were victims of this attack. In particular, access to Microsoft’s source codes could be the ground for further attacks on high- and low-profile targets, as Microsoft’s tools are used in businesses of all sizes and by individuals as well.

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