Category: European Data Protection

French Government seeks to disregard CJEU data retention of surveillance data ruling

9. March 2021

On March 3rd, POLITICO reported that the French government seeks to bypass the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) ruling on limiting member states’ surveillance activities of phone and internet data, stating governments can only retain mass amounts of data when facing a “serious threat to national security”.

According to POLITICO, the French government has requested the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to not follow the CJEU’s ruling in the matter.

Last year in October, the CJEU ruled that several national data retention rules were not compliant with EU law. This ruling included retention times set forth by the French government in matters of national security.

The French case in question opposes the government against digital rights NGOs La Quadrature du Net and Privacy International. After the CJEU’s ruling, it is now in the hands of the Council of State in France, which will have to decide on the matter.

A hearing date has not yet been decided, however POLITICO sources state that the French government is trying to bypass the CJEU’s ruling by presenting the argument of the ruling going against the country’s “constitutional identity”. This argument, first used back in 2006, is seldomly used, however can be referred to in order to avoid applying EU law at national level.

In addition, the French government accuses the CJEU to have ruled out of its competence, as matters of national security remain solely part of national competence.

The French government did not want to comment on the ongoing process, however has had a history of refusing to adopt EU court rulings into national law.

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.

EU Member States agree on EU Council’s Draft for the ePrivacy Regulation

22. February 2021

On February 10, 2021, representatives of the EU Member States have reached an agreement on a negotiating mandate for the draft ePrivacy Regulation.

The Council of the European Union’s (the Council) text approved by the EU Member States was prepared under Portugal’s Presidency. It will form the basis of the Council’s negotiations with the European Parliament as part of the trilogue process on the final terms of the ePrivacy Regulation, which will replace the current ePrivacy Directive.

The main key elements of the new draft are highlighted by the Council, and encompass the following points:

  • Coverage of both electronic communications content and communications metadata – the text sticks with the general principle that electronic communications data is confidential, which means that any interference by anyone other than the parties involved in the communication is prohibited, except when given permission by the ePrivacy Regulation
  • Machine-to-machine data transmitted via a public network, as this is deemed necessary to protect privacy rights in the context of Internet of Things applications
  • The scope of application includes users located in the EU, regardless of whether the processing of their data takes place outside the EU or the service provider is located in a non-EU jurisdiction
  • Regarding the use of cookies and other technologies involving the storage of information on or collection of information from a user’s device, the Council’s text provides that the use of these technologies will only be legitimate if the user has consented or for specific purposes laid down in the ePrivacy Regulation; however, users should be able to have genuine choice

In addition to broadening the scope of the current directive, the proposed regulation would most likely affect an advertising technology market that is already in the process of undergoing significant changes. As such, the European Commission is also working on the proposed Digital Service Act, Digital Governance Act and Digital Market Act.

However, the draft is presumed to initiate some arguments going forth into the next stage. Based on previous drafts, there are some differences which will need to be reconciled. Especially with regard to the permissions for accessing content and metadata of electronic communications, the two sides are somewhat divided. Where the European Parliament is pushing primarily for consent, the Council seems to have added some more permissions and exceptions to the consent rule. The content regarding data retention will be another point where intense arguments are predicted.

Criticism also comes from some countries, for example from the German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection, Ulrich Kelber. In a press release he attacked the new draft as “a severe blow to data protection”, mentioning that he is concerned by the “interference with the fundamental rights of European citizens”.

Although the new draft brings the erPrivacy Regulation back to life, it is still a long road before unison on its text is fully reached. It is certain that intense discussion in the upcoming trilogue process will continue, and the outcome will be closely watched by many.

Dutch data scandal: illegal trade of COVID-19 patient data

19. February 2021

In recent months, a RTL Nieuws reporter Daniël Verlaan has discovered widespread trade in the personal data of Dutch COVID-19 test subjects. He found ads consisting of photos of computer screens listing data of Dutch citizens. Apparently, the data had been offered for sale on various instant messaging apps such as Telegram, Snapchat and Wickr. The prices ranged from €30 to €50 per person. The data included home addresses, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth and BSN identifiers (Dutch social security number).

The personal data were registered in the two main IT systems of the Dutch Municipal Health Service (GGD) – CoronIT, containing details about citizens who took a COVID-19 test, and HPzone Light, a contact-tracing system, which contains the personal data of people infected with the coronavirus.

After becoming aware of the illegal trade, the GGD reported it to the Dutch Data Protection Authority and the police. The cybercrime team of the Midden-Nederland police immediately started an investigation. It showed that at least two GGD employees had maliciously stolen the data, as they had access to the official Dutch government COVID-19 systems and databases. Within 24 hours of the complaint, two men were arrested. Several days later, a third suspect was tracked down as well. The investigation continues, since the extent of the data theft is unclear and whether the suspects in fact managed to sell the data. Therefore, more arrests are certainly not excluded.

Chair of the Dutch Institute for Vulnerability Disclosure, Victor Gevers, told ZDNet in an interview:

Because people are working from home, they can easily take photos of their screens. This is one of the issues when your administrative staff is working from home.

Many people expressed their disapproval of the insufficient security measures concerning the COVID-19 systems. Since the databases include very sensitive data, the government has a duty to protect these properly in order to prevent criminal misuse. People must be able to rely on their personal data being treated confidentially.

In a press release, the Dutch police also raised awareness of the cybercrime risks, like scam or identity fraud. Moreover, they informed about the possibilities of protection against such crimes and the need to report them. This prevents victims and allows the police to immediately track down suspects and stop their criminal practices.

GDPR fines and data breach reports increased in 2020

12. February 2021

In 2020 a total of €158.5 million in fines were imposed, research by DLA Piper shows. This represents a 39% increase compared to the 20 months the GDPR was previously in force since May 25th, 2018.

Since that date, a total of € 272.5 million in fines have been imposed across Europe under the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). Italian authorities imposed a total of € 69.3 million, German authorities € 69.1 million, and French authorities 54.4 million. This calculation does not include two fines against Google LLC and Google Ireland Limited totalling € 100 million  (€ 60million + € 40million) and a fine of € 35 million against Amazon Europe Core issued by the French data protection authority “Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés” (“CNIL”) on December 10th, 2020, (please see our respective blog post), as proceedings on these fines are pending before the Conseil d’Etat.

A total of 281,000 data breaches were reported during this period, although the countries that imposed the highest fines were not necessarily those where the most data breaches were reported. While Germany and the UK can be found in the top of both lists, with 77,747 data breaches reported in Germany, 30,536 in the UK and 66,527 in the Netherlands, only 5,389 data breaches were reported in France and only 3,460 in Italy.

Although the biggest imposed fine to date still is a fine of € 50 million issued by CNIL against Google LLC in January 2019 (please see our respective blog post) a number of high-profile fines were imposed in 2020, with 6 of the top 10 all time fines being issued in 2020 and one in 2021.

1. H&M Hennes & Mauritz Online Shop A.B. & Co. KG was fined € 35 million for monitoring several hundred employees (please see our respective blog post).

2. TIM (Italian telecommunications operator) was fined € 27 million for making unwanted promotion calls.

3. British Airways was fined € 22 million for failing to protect personal and financial data of more than 400,000 customers (please see our blog post)

4. Marriott International was fined € 20 million for a data breach affecting up to 383 million customers (please see our respective blog post)

5. Wind Tre S.p.A. was fined € 17 million for unsolicited marketing communications.

A comparison of the highest fines shows that most of them were imposed due to an insufficient legal basis for the processing of personal data (Art. 5 & 6 GDPR) or due to insufficient technical and organizational measures to ensure an appropriate level of security (Art. 32 GDPR).

While the European authorities have shown their willingness to enforce the GDPR rules, they have also shown leniency due to the impact that the COVID 19 pandemic has had on businesses. At least in part due to the impact of the pandemic, the penalties planned by the UK ICO have been softened. A planned fine of €205 million for British Airways was reduced to €22 million and a planned fine of €110 million for Marriott International was reduced to €20 million. GDPR investigations are also often lengthy and contentious, so the increased fines may in part be due to more investigations having had sufficient time to be completed. For example, the dispute over the above fines for British Airways and Marriott International has already started in 2019.

Not only the fines but also the number of data breach notifications increased in 2020. In 2020 121,165 data breaches were reported, an average of 331 notifications per day, compared to 278 per day in 2019. In terms of reported data breaches per 100,000 inhabitants, there is a stark contrast between Northern and Southern European countries. In 2020, Denmark recorded 155.6 data breaches per 100,000 inhabitants, the Netherlands 150, Ireland 127.8, while Greece, Italy and Croatia reported the lowest number of data breaches per inhabitant.

The trend shows that the GDPR is being taken more and more seriously by companies and authorities, and this trend is likely to continue as authorities become more confident in enforcing the GDPR. Fines are only likely to increase, especially as none of the fines imposed so far even come close to the maximum possible amount of 4% of a company’s global annual turnover. The figures also show that while the laws are in principle the same and are supposed to be applied the same in all EEA countries, nations have different approaches to interpreting and implementing them. In the near future, we can expect to see the first penalties resulting from the GDPR restrictions on data transfers to third countries, especially in the aftermath of the Schrems II ruling on data transfers to the USA.

Data Protection and Clinical Trials – Part 1

10. February 2021

In the two and a half years since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has come into effect, a lot of organizations have gotten used to the new laws and standards it has established. However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions in certain industries, one of those industries being life sciences, and more specifically clinical trials.

The GDPR and the guidance of the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) allow for a lot of speculation, due to the fact that they are unable to fully specify the reach and definitive approach to data protection in a lot of industries.

This short series aims to give an overview on the handling of clinical trials from a data protection point of view, as well as answers to important questions that come up in day to day business in the industry.

In general, clinical trials are a processing activity according to Art. 4 (2) GDPR, therefore the basic data protection obligations are to be applied to clinical trials, such as:

  • Following the basic GDPR principles laid out in Art. 5 GDPR, namely lawfulness, fairness and transparency, purpose limitation, data minimisation, data accuracy, storage limitation, integrity, confidentiality and accountability
  • Information obligations of the controller according to Art. 13, 14 GDPR
  • Data Subjects Rights according to Art. 15 to Art. 21 GDPR
  • Obligation to have a record of processing activities according to Art. 30 para. 1, 2 GDPR
  • Security Measures need to be in place, in compliance with Art. 32 GDPR
  • Data Breach Notifications to the supervisory authority as well as the data subjects according to Art. 33, 34 GDPR
  • A Data Protection Impact Assessment has to be done prior to the start of the clinical trials, according to Art. 35 GDPR

However, the first and foremost important question regarding the processing of personal data for clinical trials is:

Which legal basis is applicable to the processing?

The EDPB addressed this issue in their Opinion on the Interplay between Clinical Trials and the GDPR, and has, in a first instance, differentiated between the processing of personal data for clinical trial protocols as primary purpose of the processing, and, on the other hand, clinical trials as a secondary purpose next to, for example, patient care.

According to the EDPB’s opinion, the applicable legal basis is to be determined by the controller on a case by case basis. However, the EDPB does give their own general assessment on the legal basis applicable for the different scenarios that have crystalized in the eyes of the EDPB:

  • Primary use of the processed personal data for clinical trials
    a. Processing activities related to reliability and safety
    -> Legal obligations of the controller, Art. 6 para. 1 (c) GDPR in conjunction with Art. 9 para. 1 (i) GDPR
    b. Processing activities purely related to research activities
    -> Task carried out in the public interest, Art. 6 para. 1 (e) GDPR in conjunction with Art. 9 para. 2 (i) or (j) GDPR
    -> Legitimate interest of the controller, Art. 6 para. 1 (f) GDPR in conjunction with Art. 9 para. 2 (j) GDPR
    -> In specific circumstances, explicit consent of the data subject, Art. 6 para. 1 (a) GDPR and Art. 9 para. 2 (a) GDPR
  • Secondary use of the clinical trial data outside the clinical trial protocol for scientific purposes
    -> Explicit consent of the data subject, Art. 6 para. 1 (a) GDPR and Art. 9 para. 2 (a) GDPR

While the guidance in assessing the legal basis for the processing is helpful, the EDPB does not address any further open issues regarding clinical trials in their opinion. Nonetheless, there are further subjects that cause confusion.

However, some of these subjects will be treated in our next part of this series, where we will have a closer look at clinical trial sponsorship from outside the EEA as well as the questions revolving around controllership roles in clinical trials.

University fined for omitted notification of a data breach

4. February 2021

The President of the Personal Data Protection Office in Poland (UODO) imposed a fine on the Medical University of Silesia in the amount of PLN 25.000 (approx. EUR 5.600). The university had suffered a data breach of which it should have notified the supervisory authority and the data subjects according to Articles 33, 34 GDPR, but failed to do so.

First indications of the data breach reached UODO in early June 2020. It was related to exams held at the end of May 2020 by videoconference on an e-learning platform. These were also being recorded. Before the exam, students were identified by their IDs or student cards, so a large amount of their personal data was documented on the recordings. After the exam was completed, the recordings were made available on the platform. However, not only the examinees had access to the platform, but also a wider group of people, about which the students had not been informed. In addition, using a direct link, any extern person could access the recordings and therefore the data of the examinees. Many students, fearing that the video would be deleted to cover up the incident, secured the file or took photographs of the computer screens to protect evidence. Eventually, the chancellor (being the decision-making unit) expressed the position that the incident of 200 people viewing the IDs of some 100-150 other people cannot be considered a personal data breach.

The controller, who was requested to clarify the situation by UODO, did not dispute the data breach. In fact, the virtual room of the platform is only available to the exam group and only those people have access to the recordings. The violation occurred because one of the employees did not close access to the virtual room after the exam. Though, the controller stated that no notification was required. In his opinion the risk to the rights or freedoms of the data subjects was low. Moreover, after the incident, the system was modified to prevent students from downloading the exam files. The controller also indicated that he identified the individuals who had done so and informed them about their criminal liability for disseminating the data.

Despite several letters from UODO, the university still omitted to report the data breach and notify the data subjects. Therefore, administrative proceedings were initiated. UODO found that the controller failed to comply with his obligations to notify both the supervisory authority and affected data subjects as well as improperly assessed the risk involved.

When imposing the fine, the President of UODO took into account the duration of the infringement (several months), the intentional action of the controller and his unsatisfactory cooperation with the supervisory authority. The fine will serve not only a repressive but also a preventive function, as it shows that the obligations arisen in connection with data breaches cannot be ignored. All the more so because an inappropriate approach to the obligations imposed by the GDPR may lead to negative consequences for those affected by the breaches.

EDPB published Guideline on Data Breach Examples for Controllers

28. January 2021

On January 18th, 2021, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) published their draft Guidelines 01/2021 on Examples regarding Data Breach Notification.

These Guidelines are supposed to give further support to Controllers alongside the initial Guidelines on Personal Data Breach Notification under the GDPR, adopted by the Article 29 Working Party in February 2018. These new Guidelines are meant to consider different types of situations that the Supervisory Authorities have come across in the last two and a half years since the implementation of the GDPR.

The EDPB’s intention is to assist Controllers in deciding how to handle data breaches, namely by identifying the factors that they must consider when conducting risk assessments to determine whether a breach must be reported to relevant Supervisory Authorities as well as if a notification to the affected Data Subjects is necessary.

The draft Guidelines present examples of common data breach scenarios, including:

• ransomware attacks, where a malicious code encrypts the personal data and the attacker subsequently asks the controller for a ransom in exchange for the decryption code
• data exfiltration attacks, which exploit vulnerabilities in online services offered by the controller and typically aim at copying, exfiltrating and abusing personal data for malicious purposes
• human errors resulting in data breaches that are fairly common and can be both intentional and unintentional
• lost or stolen devices and paper documents
• “mispostal” scenarios, that arise from human error without malicious intent
• social engineering, such as identity theft and email exfiltration

The draft Guidelines further emphasize key elements of data breach management and response that organizations should consider, namely:

• proactively identifying system vulnerabilities in order to prevent data breaches from happening in the first place
• assessing whether a breach is likely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of the Data Subject, the timing of this assessment and the importance of Controllers not delaying a notification because of unclear circumstances
• implementing plans, procedures and guidelines indicating how to handle data breaches that have clear reporting lines and persons responsible for the recovery process
• organizing regular trainings for employees to raise awareness on data breach management, and the latest developments in the area
• documenting breaches in each and every case, irrespective of the risk they pose

The Guidelines will be open for public consultation until March 2nd, 2021, during which the EDPB will gather feedback on the draft.

Clubhouse Data Protection issues

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.

CJEU Advocate General’s opinion on GDPR’s One-Stop-Shop mechanism

26. January 2021

On January 13, 2021, the Advocate General (“AG”) of the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) published an opinion in the case of Facebook Ireland Limited, Facebook INC, Facebook Belgium BVBA v the Belgian Data Protection Authority “Gegevensbeschermingsautoriteit” (“Belgian DPA”), addressing the General Data Protection Regulation’s (“GDPR”) One-Stop-Shop mechanism.

In 2015, the Belgian DPA initiated several legal proceedings against Facebook Group members in local courts. The allegation was that Facebook placed cookies on devices of Belgian users without their consent, thereby collecting data in an excessive manner. Facebook argued that with the GDPR becoming applicable in 2018, the Belgian DPA lost its competence to continue the legal proceedings, as Facebook’s lead supervisory authority under the GDPR is the Irish Data Protection Commission. The Belgian Court of Appeal referred several questions to the CJEU, including whether the GDPR’s One-Stop-Shop regime prevented national DPA’s from initiating proceedings in the national courts when it is not the lead DPA.

The AG responded that, in his opinion, the lead DPA has the general jurisdiction over cross-border data processing, while a national DPA may exceptionally bring proceedings before its own national courts. The national DPA’s right is subject to the One-Stop-Shop regime and cooperation and consistency mechanism of the GDPR. Thus, each national DPA has the competence to initiate proceedings against possible infringements affecting its territory, the significant regulatory role of the lead DPA limits this competence with respect to cross-border data processing.

One of the concerns expressed by the Belgian DPA was the risk of insufficient enforcement if only lead DPA’s may act against organizations that do not comply with the GDPR. In this regard, the GA emphasizes that Art. 61 GDPR specifically provides for appropriate mechanisms to address such concerns. National DPA’s have the possibility to ask the lead DPA for assistance in investigations, and if such assistance is not provided, the national DPA concerned may take action itself.

In certain circumstances, the AG sees the possibility for national DPAs not acting as lead DPA to initiate proceedings before their national court, if

  • the DPA is acting outside of the material scope of the GDPR; e.g., because the processing does not involve personal data;
  • cross-border data processing is carried out by public authorities, in the public interest, or to comply with legal obligations;
  • the processor is not established in the EU;
  • there is an urgent need to act to protect the rights and freedoms of data subjects (Art. 66 GDPR);
  • the lead DPA has decided not to process a case.

With regards to data subjects, the AG notes that data subjects can bring action against any controller or processor before the court of their Member State and may file a complaint with their Member State’s DPA, regardless of which Member State’s DPA is the lead DPA.

The AG’s opinion is not legally binding on the CJEU, although the CJEU will take it into account. A final judgment of the CJEU is expected in the coming months. Thereafter, the Belgian Court of Appeal will have to decide its case in accordance with the CJEU’s judgment. The CJEU’s decision will most likely have a lasting impact on the division of roles between lead DPAs and other national DPAs, as well as on the ability of national DPAs to take enforcement actions into their own hands.

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