Category: USA

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.

EDPS considers Privacy Shield replacement unlikely for a while

18. December 2020

The data transfer agreements between the EU and the USA, namely Safe Harbor and its successor Privacy Shield, have suffered a hard fate for years. Both have been declared invalid by the European Court of Justice (CJEU) in the course of proceedings initiated by Austrian lawyer and privacy activist Max Schrems against Facebook. In either case, the court came to the conclusion that the agreements did not meet the requirements to guarantee equivalent data protection standards and thus violated Europeans’ fundamental rights due to data transfer to US law enforcement agencies enabled by US surveillance laws.

The judgement marking the end of the EU-US Privacy Shield (“Schrems II”) has a huge impact on EU companies doing business with the USA, which are now expected to rely on Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs). However, the CJEU tightened the requirements for the SCCs. When using them in the future, companies have to determine whether there is an adequate level of data protection in the third country. Therefore, in particular cases, there may need to be taken additional measures to ensure a level of protection that is essentially the same as in the EU.

Despite this, companies were hoping for a new transatlantic data transfer pact. Though, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiórowski expressed doubts on an agreement in the near future:

I don’t expect a new solution instead of Privacy Shield in the space of weeks, and probably not even months, and so we have to be ready that the system without a Privacy Shield like solution will last for a while.

He justified his skepticism with the incoming Biden administration, since it may have other priorities than possible changes in the American national security laws. An agreement upon a new data transfer mechanism would admittedly depend on leveling US national security laws with EU fundamental rights.

With that in mind, the EU does not remain inactive. It is also trying to devise different ways to maintain its data transfers with the rest of the world. In this regard, the EDPS appreciated European Commission’s proposed revisions to SCCs, which take into consideration the provisions laid down in CJEU’s judgement “Schrems II”.

The proposed Standard Contractual Clauses look very promising and they are already introducing many thoughts given by the data protection authorities.

EU offers new alliance with the USA on data protection

4. December 2020

The European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy outlined a new EU-US agenda for global change, which was published on December 2nd, 2020. It constitutes a proposal for a new, forward-looking transatlantic cooperation covering a variety of matters, including data protection.

The draft plan states the following guiding principles:

  • Advance of global common goods, providing a solid base for stronger multilateral action and institutions that will support all like-minded partners to join.
  • Pursuing common interests and leverage collective strength to deliver results on strategic priorities.
  • Looking for solutions that respect common values of fairness, openness and competition – including where there are bilateral differences.

As said in the draft plan, it is a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to forge a new global alliance. It includes an appeal for the EU and US to bury the hatchet on persistent sources of transatlantic tension and join forces to shape the digital regulatory environment. The proposal aims to create a shared approach to enforcing data protection law and combatting cybersecurity threats, which could also include possible restrictive measures against attributed attackers from third countries. Moreover, a transatlantic agreement concerning Artificial Intelligence forms a part of the recommendation. The purpose is setting a blueprint for regional and global standards. The EU also wants to openly discuss diverging views on data governance and facilitate free data flow with trust on the basis of high safeguards. Furthermore, the creation of a specific dialogue with the US on the responsibility of online platforms and Big Tech is included in the proposal as well as the development of a common approach to protecting critical technologies.

The draft plan is expected to be submitted for endorsement by the European Council at a meeting on December 10-11th, 2020. It suggests an EU-US Summit in the first half of 2021 as the moment to launch the new transatlantic agenda.

The Controversy around the Council of the European Union’s Declaration on End-to-End Encryption

27. November 2020

In the course of November 2020, the Council of the European Union issued several draft versions of a joint declaration with the working title “Security through encryption and security despite encryption”. The drafts were initially intended only for internal purposes, but leaked and first published by the Austrian brodcasting network “Österreichischer Rundfunk” (“ORF”) in an article by journalist Erich Möchel. Since then, the matter has sparked widespread public interest and media attention.

The controversy around the declaration arose when the ORF commentator Möchel presented further information from unknown sources that “compentent authorities” shall be given “exceptional access” to the end-to-end encryption of communications. This would mean that communications service providers like WhatsApp, Signal etc. would be obliged to allow a backdoor and create a general key to encrypted communications which they would deposit with public authorities. From comparing the version of the declaration from 6 November 2020 with the previous version from 21 October 2020, he highlighted that in the previous version it states that additional practical powers shall be given to “law enforcement and judicial authorities”, whereas in the more recent version, the powers shall be given to “competent authorities in the area of security and criminal justice”. He adds that the new broader wording would include European intelligence agencies as well and allow them to undermine end-to-end encryption. Furthermore, he also indicated that plans to restrict end-to-end encyption in Western countries are not new, but originally proposed by the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

As a result of the ORF article, the supposed plans to restrict or ban end-to-end encryption have been widely criticised by Politicians, Journalists, and NGOs stating that any backdoors to end-to-end encryption would render any secure encryption impossible.

However, while it can be verified that the “Five Eyes” propose the creation of general keys to access end-to-end encrypted communications, similar plans for the EU cannot be clearly deduced from the EU Council’s declaration at hand. The declaration itself recognises end-to-end encryption as highly beneficial to protect governments, critical infrastructures, civil society, citizens and industry by ensuring privacy, confidentiality and data integrity of communications and personal data. Moreover, it mentions that EU data protection authorities have identified it as an important tool in light of the Schrems II decision of the CJEU. At the same time, the Council’s declaration illustrates that end-to-end encryption poses large challenges for criminal investigations when gathering evidencein cases of cyber crime, making it at times “practically impossible”. Lastly, the Council calls for an open, unbiased and active discussion with the tech industry, research and academia in order to achieve a better balance between “security through encryption and security despite encryption”.

Möchel’s sources for EU plans to ban end-to-end encryption through general keys remain unknown and unverifiable. Despite general concerns for overarching surveillance powers of governments, the public can only approach the controversy around the EU Council’s declaration with due objectivity and remain observant on whether or how the EU will regulate end-to-end encryption and find the right balance between the privacy rights of European citizens and the public security and criminal justice interests of governments.

Microsoft reacts on EDPB’s data transfer recommendations

24. November 2020

Microsoft (“MS”) is among the first companies to react to the European Data Protection Board’s data transfer recommendations (please see our article), as the tech giant announced in a blog post on November 19th. MS calls these additional safeguards “Defending Your Data” and will immediately start implementing them in contracts with public sector and enterprise customers.

In light of the Schrems II ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) on June 16th, the EDPB issued recommendations on how to transfer data into non-EEA countries in accordance with the GDPR on November 17th (please see our article). The recommendations lay out a six-step plan on how to assess whether a data transfer is up to GDPR standards or not. These steps include mapping all data transfer, assessing a third countries legislation, assessing the tool used for transferring data and adding supplementary measures to that tool. Among the latter is a list of technical, organizational, and contractual measures to be implemented to ensure the effectiveness of the tool.

Julie Brill, Corporate Vice President for Global Privacy and Regulatory Affairs and Chief Privacy Officer at Microsoft, issued the statement in which she declares MS to be the first company responding to the EDPB’s guidance. These safeguards include an obligation for MS to challenge all government requests for public sector or enterprise customer data, where it has a lawful basis for doing so; to try and redirect data requests; and to notify the customer promptly if legally allowed, about any data request by an authority, concerning that customer. This was one of the main ETDB recommendations and also included in a draft for new Standard Contractual Clauses published by the European Commission on November 12th. MS announces to monetary compensate customers, whose personal data has to be disclosed in response to government requests.  These changes are additions to the SCC’s MS is using ever since Schrems II. Which include (as MS states) data encrypted to a high standard during transition and storage, transparency regarding government access requests to data (“U.S. National Security Orders Report” dating back to 2011; “Law Enforcement Requests Report“) .

Recently European authorities have been criticizing MS and especially its Microsoft 365 (“MS 365”) (formerly Office 365) tools for not being GDPR compliant. In July 2019 the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands issued a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), warning authorities not to use Office 365 ProPlus, Windows 10 Enterprise, as well as Office Online and Mobile, since they do not comply with GDPR standards. The European Data Protection Supervisor issued a warning in July 2020 stating that the use of MS 365 by EU authorities and contracts between EU institutions and MS do not comply with the GDPR. Also, the German Data Security Congress (“GDSC”) issued a statement in October, in which it declared MS 365 as not being compliant with the GDPR. The GDSC is a board made up of the regional data security authorities of all 16 german states and the national data security authority. This declaration was reached by a narrow vote of 9 to 8. Some of the 8 regional authorities later even issued a press release explaining why they voted against the declaration. They criticized a missing involvement and hearing of MS during the process, the GDSC’s use of MS’ Online Service Terms and Data Processing Addendum dating back to January 2020 and the declaration for being too undifferentiated.

Some of the German data protection authorities opposing the GDSC’s statement were quick in welcoming the new developments in a joint press release. Although, they stress that the main issues in data transfer from the EU to the U.S. still were not solved. Especially the CJEU main reserves regarding the mass monitoring of data streams by U.S. intelligence agencies (such as the NSA) are hard to prevent and make up for. Still, they announced the GDSC would resume its talks with MS before the end of 2020.

This quick reaction to the EDPB recommendations should bring some ease into the discussion surrounding MS’ GDPR compliance. It will most likely help MS case, especially with the German authorities, and might even lead to a prompt resolution in a conflict regarding tools that are omnipresent at workplaces all over the globe.

California Voters approve new Privacy Legislation CPRA

20. November 2020

On November 3rd 2020, Californian citizens were able to vote on the California Privacy Rights Act of 2020 (“CPRA”) in a state ballot (we reported). As polls leading up to the vote already suggested, California voters approved the new Privacy legislation, also known as “Prop 24”. The CPRA was passed with 56.2% of Yes Votes to 43.8% of No Votes. Most provisions of the CPRA will enter into force on 1 January 2021 and will become applicable to businesses on 1 January 2023. It will, at large, only apply to information collected from 1 January 2022.

The CPRA will complement and expand privacy rights of California citizens considerably. Among others, the amendments will include:

  • Broadening the term “sale” of personal information to “sale or share” of private information,
  • Adding new requirements to qualify as a “service provider” and defining the term “contractor” anew,
  • Defining the term “consent”,
  • Introducing the category of “Sensitive Information”, including a consumer’s Right to limit the use of “Sensitive Information”,
  • Introducing the concept of “Profiling” and granting consumers the Right to Opt-out of the use of the personal information for Automated Decision-Making,
  • Granting consumers the Right to correct inaccurate information,
  • Granting consumers the Right to Data Portability, and
  • Establishing the California Privacy Protection Agency (CalPPA) with a broad scope of responsibilities and enforcement powers.

Ensuring compliance with the CPRA will require proper preparation. Affected businesses will have to review existing processes or implement new processes in order to guarantee the newly added consumer rights, meet the contractual requirements with service providers/contractors, and show compliance with the new legislation as a whole.

In an interview after the passage of the CPRA, the initiator of the CCPA and the CPRA Alastair Mactaggard commented that

Privacy legislation is here to stay.

He hopes that California Privacy legislation will be a model for other states or even the U.S. Congress to follow, in order to offer consumers in other parts of the country the same Privacy rights as there are in California now.

The CCPA is not enough: Californians will vote on the CPRA

28. October 2020

On 3 November 2020, the day of the US Presidential Election, Californian citizens will also be able to vote on the California Privacy Rights Act of 2020 (“CPRA”) in a state ballot. The CPRA shall expand Califonian consumers’ privacy rights given by the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (“CCPA”) which only came into effect on 2 January 2020.

The NGO “Californians for Consumer Privacy”, led by privacy activist Alastair Mactaggart, initiated the upcoming state ballot on the CPRA. Mactaggart’s NGO already qualified for a state ballot on the adoption of the CCPA by collecting over 629,000 signatures of California citizens in 2018. However, the NGO dropped the proposal in 2018 after California state legislators persuaded the intitiators that they will pass the CCPA through the legislative process. But because several significant amendments to the original proposal were passed during the legislative process, the NGO created the new CPRA initiative in 2020. This time, the group submitted more than 900,000 signatures. The CPRA is supposed to expand on the provisions of the CCPA. In case the CPRA is approved by California voters on November 3rd, it could not be easily amended and would require further direct voter action. Most provisions of the CPRA would become effective on 1 January 2023 and would only apply to information collected from 1 January 2022.

Some of the key provisions of the newly proposed CPRA seem to draw inspiration from the provisions of the European General Data Protection Regulations (“GDPR”) and include the establishment of an enforcement agency (the “California Privacy Protections Agency”), explicitly protecting “Sensitive Personal Information” of consumers and granting the right to rectify inaccurate personal information. The CPRA would furthermore require businesses to abide to information obligations comparable to those required by Art. 12-14 GDPR.

As the day of the state ballot is fast approaching, recent polls suggest that the CPRA will likely pass and complement the already existing CCPA, forming the US’ strictest privacy rules to date.

Privacy Activist Schrems unleashes 101 Complaints

21. September 2020

Lawyer and privacy activist Maximilian Schrems has become known for his legal actions leading to the invalidation of “Safe Harbor” in 2015 and of the “EU-U.S. Privacy Shield” this year (we reported). Following the landmark court decision on the “EU-U.S. Privacy Shield”, Schrems recently announced on the website of his NGO “noyb” (non-of-your-business) that he has filed 101 complaints against 101 European companies in 30 different EU and EEA countries with the responsible Data Protection Authorities. Schrems exercised the right to lodge a complaint with the supervisory authority that every data subject has if he or she considers that the processing of personal data relating to him or her infringes the Regulation, pursuant to Art. 77 GDPR.

The complaints concern the companies’ continued use of Google Analytics and Facebook Connect that transfer personal data about each website visitor (at least IP-address and Cookie data) to Google and Facebook which reside in the United States and fall under U.S. surveillance laws, such as FISA 702. Schrems also published a list of the 101 companies which include Sky Deutschland, the University of Luxembourg and the Cyprus Football Association. With his symbolic action against 101 companies, Schrems wanted to point to the widespread inactivity among many companies that still do not take the data protection rights of individuals seriously despite the recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

In response, the European Data Protection Board (“EDPB”) has set up a “task force” to handle complaints against European companies using Google Analytics and Facebook services. The taskforce shall analyse the matter and ensure a close cooperation among the members of the Board which consists of all European supervisory authorities as well as the European Data Protection Supervisor.

U.S. Commerce Department publishes FAQs on EU-US Privacy Shield

12. August 2020

The U.S. Commerce Department has released a frequently asked questions page (FAQ) with regards to the EU-US Privacy Shield, following the latest decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the Schrems II case.

The FAQ consists of five questions which revolve around the situation after the invalidation of the Privacy Shield by the CJEU, especially the status of companies already certified under the Privacy Shield.

The Commerce Department states in its FAQ that despite the invalidity of the Privacy Shield certification as a GDPR compliant transfer mechanism, the decision of the CJEU does not relieve companies certified under the Privacy Shield from their obligations. On July 21, 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stated that they expect controllers to continue to follow the obligations laid out under the Privacy Shield Framework for transfers.

Further, the Commerce Department will continue to administer certification and re-certification under the Privacy Shield despite the new development. The Commerce Department emphasizes that the continued dedication to the Privacy Shield will show the commitment of the parties and the controllers certified under it to the Data Protection cause.

However, the Commerce Department also notes that the costs coming along with a Privacy Shield certification will remain, which could have an effect on the motivation for companies to get self- and re-certified.

CJEU judges the EU-US Privacy Shield invalid

16. July 2020

On June 16th, 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has declared the invalidity of Decision 2016/1250, therefore rendering protection granted to data transfers under the EU-US Privacy Shield inadequate.

The background

The case originated in a complaint of Mr. Max Schrems against Facebook Ireland regarding the transfer of his personal data as a Facebook user to Facebook Inc., situated in the USA, for further processing. Mr. Schrems lodged a complaint with the Irish supervisory authority seeking to prohibit those transfers. He claimed that the law and practices in the United States do not offer sufficient protection against access by the public authorities to the data transferred to the USA. That complaint was rejected on the ground that, in Decision 2000/5205, the Safe Harbour Decision, the Commission had found that the United States ensured an adequate level of protection. In a judgment delivered on October 6th, 2015, the CJEU, to which the High Court of Ireland had referred questions for a preliminary ruling, declared that decision invalid, resulting in the Schrems I judgment.

Today’s judgement in the Schrems II case came from the request of the Irish High Court to Mr. Schrems to reformulate his initial complaint, seeing as the Safe Harbour Agreement had been deemed inadequate. In the following, Mr. Schrems reformulated his complaint, and claimed that the United States does not offer sufficient protection of data transferred to that country. He seeks the suspension of future transfers of his personal data from the EU to the United States, which Facebook Ireland now carries out pursuant to the Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) set out in the Annex to Decision 2010/87. After the initiation of those proceedings, the Commission adopted Decision 2016/1250 on the adequacy of the protection provided by the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield.

In its request for a preliminary ruling, the referring court asked the CJEU whether the GDPR applies to transfers of personal data pursuant to the SCCs, what level of protection is required by the GDPR in connection with such a transfer, and what obligations are incumbent on supervisory authorities in those circumstances. The High Court of Ireland also raised the question of the validity of both decisions,  Decision 2010/87 and  Decision 2016/1250.

Judgement in regard to SCCs

In its judgements, the CJEU has stated that it had, after examination of the SCCs in light of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, found nothing that affected the validity of the SCCs and Decision 2010/87.

With regards to the transfer of personal data to third countries, the CJEU claims that the requirements for such purposes set out by the GDPR concerning appropriate safeguards, enforceable rights and effective legal measures must be interpreted in such a way that data subjects whose personal data is transferred into a third country must be afforded a level of protection essentially similar to the level of protection granted within the European Union by the GDPR.

Data Protection Authorities must, unless an adequacy decision has been ruled by the Commission, be required to suspend or prohibit a transfer of personal data to a third country which does not meet these requirements.

The CJEU holds that the SCCs are still effective mechanisms that make it possible to ensure compliance with a level of protection required by the European Union. In that regard the CJEU points out that this imposes an obligation on the data exporter and the recipient of the data to verify, prior to any transfer, whether that level of protection is respected in the third country concerned, and to suspend the transfer of the personal data if it is not.

Judgement in regard to the EU-US Privacy Shield

The CJEU, after thorough examination, concluded that the EU-US Privacy Shield is not adequate protection for transfers to the USA.

This result comes from the fact that the far-reaching US surveillance laws are in conflict with EU fundamental rights. The USA limits most of its protections of personal data from governmental surveillance to US citizen, but does not extend that protection to the personal data of citizens of other countries.

In essence, the limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the USA on the access and use by US public authorities of such data transferred from the European Union are not restricted in a way that satisfies requirements that are equivalent to those required under EU law, which were mentioned in regards to SCCs above. By the principle of proportionality, the surveillance programmes based on those provisions are not limited to what is strictly necessary.

Unless an empowerment and independence of the Ombudsperson takes place, which would give the competence to adopt decisions which are binding on US intelligence services, there are no substantial cause of actions for data subjects before a body which gives legal guarantees in the way that is required by European law for transfers to be equivalent in protection.

Assessment

Overall, the CJEU states that necessary data transfers are still able to continue under Article 49 of the GDPR. However, the provision’s interpretation is restrictive, leaving most companies with data transfers to the USA which are now considered illegal.

Due to the requirements of adequate protection even when relying on the validated SCCs, transfers under such circumstances may also be found unlawful due to the local intelligence laws in the USA, which do not uphold the requirements necessary by European law.

Overall, it is a clear statement of the necessity of reforms of the US intelligence laws, which have to create adequate protections to be able to guarantee the same level of data protection as the European Union, if they want to continue data trades and data transfers necessary for processing.

What does this mean for you?

  • If your business has a EU-US Privacy Shield certification, and uses such for legitimization of data transfers within a group of companies, you should push towards the use of the European Standard Contractual Clauses within that corporate group.
  • If you are employing service providers which rely on the EU-US Privacy Shield certification, you should also push for the use of Standard Contractual Clauses, or base the data transfer on a different solution for an adequate level of data protection.
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