Category: General

(Update) Processing of COVID-19 immunization data of employees in non-EEA countries

21. January 2022

With COVID-19 vaccination campaigns well under way, employers are faced with the question of whether they are legally permitted to ask employees about their COVID-19 related information and, if so, how that information may be used.

COVID-19 related information, such as vaccination status, whether an employee has recovered from an infection or whether an employee is infected with COVID-19, is considered health data. This type of data is considered particularly sensitive data in most data protection regimes, which may only be processed under strict conditions. Art. 9 (1) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)(EU), Art. 9 (1) UK-GDPR (UK), Art. 5 (II) General Personal Data Protection Law (LGPD) (Brazil), para. 1798.140. (b) California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA) (California) all consider health-related information as sensitive personal data. However, the question of whether COVID-19-related data may be processed by an employer is evaluated differently, even in the context of the same data protection regime such as the GDPR.

Below, we discuss whether employers in different European Economic Area (EEA) countries are permitted to process COVID-19-related data about their employees.

Brazil: According to the Labor Code (CLT), employers in Brazil have the right to require their employees to be vaccinated. The employer is responsible for the health and safety of its employees in the workplace and therefore has the right to take reasonable measures to ensure health and safety in the workplace. Since employers can require their employees to be vaccinated, they can also require proof of vaccination. As LGPD considers this information to be sensitive personal data, special care must be taken in processing it.

Hong-Kong: An employer may require its employees to disclose their immunization status. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance (OSHO), employers are required to take all reasonably practicable measures to ensure the safety and health of all their employees in the workplace. The vaccination may be considered as part of  COVID-19 risk assessments as a possible additional measure to mitigate the risks associated with infection with the virus in the workplace. The requirement for vaccination must be lawful and reasonable. Employers may decide, following such a risk assessment, that a vaccinated workforce is necessary and appropriate to mitigate the risk. In this case, the employer must comply with the Personal Data Protection Regulation (PDPO). Among other things, the PDPO requires that the collection of data must be necessary for the purpose for which it is collected and must not be kept longer than is necessary for that purpose. According to the PDPO, before collecting data, the employer must inform the employee whether the collection is mandatory or voluntary for the employee and, if mandatory, what the consequences are for the employee if he or she does not provide the data.

Russia: Employers must verify which employees have been vaccinated and record this information if such vaccinations are required by law. If a vaccination is not required by law, the employer may require this information, but employees have the right not to provide it. If the information on vaccinations is provided on a voluntary basis, the employer may keep it in the employee’s file, provided that the employee consents in writing to the processing of the personal data. An employer may impose mandatory vaccination if an employee performs an activity involving a high risk of infection (e.g. employees in educational institutions, organizations working with infected patients, laboratories working with live cultures of pathogens of infectious diseases or with human blood and body fluids, etc.) and a corresponding vaccination is listed in the national calendar of protective vaccinations for epidemic indications. All these cases are listed in the Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation dated July 15, 1999 No 825.

UK: An employer may inquire about an employee’s vaccination status or conduct tests on employees if it is proportionate and necessary for the employer to comply with its legal obligation to ensure health and safety at work. The employer must be able to demonstrate that the processing of this information is necessary for compliance with its health and safety obligations under employment law, Art. 9 (2) (b) UK GDPR. He must also conduct a data protection impact assessment to evaluate the necessity of the data collection and balance that necessity against the employee’s right to privacy. A policy for the collection of such data and its retention is also required. The information must be retained only as long as it is needed. There must also be no risk of unlawful discrimination, e.g. the reason for refusing vaccination could be protected from discrimination by the Equality Act 2010.

In England, mandatory vaccination is in place for staff in care homes, and from April 2022, this will also apply to staff with patient contact in the National Health Service (NHS). Other parts of the UK have not yet introduced such rules.

USA: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a document proposing that an employer may implement a vaccination policy as a condition of physically returning to the workplace. Before implementing a vaccination requirement, an employer should consider whether there are any relevant state laws or regulations that might change anything about the requirements for such a provision. If an employer asks an unvaccinated employee questions about why he or she has not been vaccinated or does not want to be vaccinated, such questions may elicit information about a disability and therefore would fall under the standard for disability-related questions. Because immunization records are personally identifiable information about an employee, the information must be recorded, handled, and stored as confidential medical information. If an employer self-administers the vaccine to its employees or contracts with a third party to do so, it must demonstrate that the screening questions are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

On November 5th, 2021, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a emergency temporary standard (ETS) urging affected employers to take affirmative action on COVID-19 safety, including adopting a policy requiring full COVID-19 vaccination of employees or giving employees the choice of either being vaccinated against COVID-19 or requiring COVID-19 testing and facial coverage. On November 12th, 2021, the court of appeals suspended enforcement of the ETS pending a decision on a permanent injunction. While this suspension is pending, OSHA cannot take any steps to implement or enforce the ETS.

In the US there are a number of different state and federal workplace safety, employment, and privacy laws that provide diverging requirements on processing COVID-19 related information.

(Update) Processing of COVID-19 immunization data of employees in EEA countries

With COVID-19 vaccination campaigns well under way, employers are faced with the question of whether they are legally permitted to ask employees about their COVID-19 related information and, if so, how that information may be used.

COVID-19 related information, such as vaccination status, whether an employee has recovered from an infection or whether an employee is infected with COVID-19, is considered health data. This type of data is considered particularly sensitive data in most data protection regimes, which may only be processed under strict conditions. Art. 9 (1) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)(EU), Art. 9 (1) UK-GDPR (UK), Art. 5 (II) General Personal Data Protection Law (LGPD) (Brazil), para. 1798.140. (b) California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA) (California) all consider health-related information as sensitive personal data. However, the question of whether COVID-19-related data may be processed by an employer is evaluated differently, even in the context of the same data protection regime such as the GDPR.

Below, we discuss whether employers in different European Economic Area (EEA) countries are permitted to process COVID-19-related data about their employees.

Austria: The processing of health data in context of the COVID-19 pandemic can be based on Article 9 (2) (b) of the GDPR in conjunction with the relevant provisions on the duty of care (processing for the purpose of fulfilling obligations under labor and social law). Under Austrian labor law, every employer has a duty of care towards its employees, which also includes the exclusion of health hazards in the workplace. However, this only entitles the employer to ask the employee in general terms whether he or she has been examined, is healthy or has been vaccinated. Therefore, if the legislator provides for two other equivalent methods to prove a low epidemiological risk in addition to vaccination, the current view of the data protection authority is that specific questioning about vaccination status is not possible from a data protection perspective. An exception to this is only to be seen in the case of an explicit (voluntary) consent of the employee (Art. 9 (2) a) GDPR), but a voluntary consent is not to be assumed as a rule due to the dependency relationship of the employee.
As of November, employees will be obliged to prove whether they have been vaccinated, recovered from a COVID-19 infection or recently tested negative if they have physical contact with others in enclosed spaces, such as the office.

Austria was the first EU country to introduce mandatory Corona vaccination. From the beginning of February, Corona vaccination will be mandatory for all persons over 18 years of age, otherwise they will face fines of up to 3,600 euros from mid-March.

Belgium: In Belgium, there is no legal basis for the processing of vaccination information of employees by their employer. Article 9 (1) GDPR prohibits the processing of health data unless an explicit exception under Article 9 (2) GDPR applies. Such an exception may be a legal provision or the free and explicit consent of the data subject. Such a legal provision is missing and in the relationship between employee and employer, the employee’s consent is rarely free, as an employee may be under great pressure to give consent. The Belgian data protection authority explicitly denies the employer’s right to ask.

The Belgian government plans to make vaccination mandatory for health workers from April 2022.

Finland: The processing of an employee’s health data is only permitted if it is directly necessary for the employment relationship. The employer must carefully assess whether this necessity exists. It is not possible to deviate from this necessity by obtaining the employee’s consent. The employer may process an employee’s health data if this is necessary for the payment of sick pay or comparable health-related benefits or to establish a legitimate reason for the employee’s absence. The processing of health data is also permitted if an employee expressly requests that his or her ability to work be determined on the basis of health data. In addition, the employer is entitled to process an employee’s health data in situations expressly provided for by law. The employer may require occupational health care to provide statistical data on the immunization coverage of its employees.

France: In general employers may not require their employees to disclose whether they have been vaccinated, unless specific circumstances determined by law apply.

In France, mandatory vaccination has been in effect since mid-September for healthcare workers, i.e., employees of hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, care services, and employees of emergency services and fire departments.

Since July 21st, 2021, a “health passport” is mandatory for recreational and cultural facilities with more than 50 visitors, such as theaters, cinemas, concerts, festivals, sports venues. The health passport is a digital or paper-based record of whether a person has been vaccinated, recovered within 11 days to 6 months, or tested negative within 48 hours. Due to the Health Crisis Management Law No 2021-1040 of August 5, 2021 there are several workplaces where the health pass is mandatory for employees since August 30th, 2021. These include bars, restaurants, seminars, public transport for long journeys (train, bus, plane The health passport is also mandatory for the staff and visitors of hospitals, homes for the elderly, retirement homes, but not for patients who have a medical emergency.Visitors and staff of department stores and shopping malls need to present a health pass in case the prefect of the department decided this necessary. In these cases, the employer is obliged to check if his employees meet their legal obligations. However, the employer should not copy and store the vaccination certificates, but only store the information whether an employee has been vaccinated. Employers who do not fall into these categories are not allowed to process their employees’ vaccination data. In these cases, only occupational health services may process this type of information and the employer may not obtain this information under any circumstances. At most, he may obtain a medical opinion on whether an employee is fit for work.

Germany: Processing of COVID-19-related information is generally only allowed for employers in certain industries. Certain employers named in the law, such as in §§ 23a, 23 Infection Protection Act (IfSG), employers in certain health care facilities (e.g. hospitals, doctors’ offices, rescue services) and § 36 (3) IfSG, such as day care centers, outpatient care services, schools, homeless shelters or correctional facilities, are allowed to process the vaccination status of their employees.

Other employers are generally not permitted to inquire about the vaccination status of employees. But since §28b IfSG came into force on November 24, 2021, employees may only be granted access to company premises if they can prove that they have either been vaccinated, recently recovered or tested negative (so-called “3G status”). In this context, employers may require employees to provide proof of one of the three statuses but may not specifically ask about vaccination status. When it comes to processing and storing information obtained during access control, for data protection reasons, this information must be limited to the fact that employees have access to the premises (taking into account their documented status) and how long this access authorization has existed.

Under current law, while “vaccinated” status does not expire, the information may only be stored for 6 months. “Recently recovered” status is only valid for three months. After that, they must provide other proof that they meet one of the 3G criteria. A negative test is valid for either 24 or 48 hours, depending on the type of test.

Since November 2021, employers are required to verify whether an employee who has been sanctioned with a quarantine for COVID-19 infection was or could have been vaccinated prior to the infection. Under the fourth sentence of Section 56 (1) of the IfSG, an employee is not entitled to continued payment for the period of quarantine if the employee could have avoided the quarantine, e.g., by taking advantage of a vaccination program. The employer must pay the compensation on behalf of the competent authority. As part of this obligation to make an advance payment, the employer is also obliged to check whether the factual requirements for granting the benefits are met. The employer is therefore obliged to obtain information on the vaccination status of its employee before paying the compensation and to decide on this basis whether compensation can be considered in the individual case. The data protection law basis for this processing activity is Section 26 (3) of the German Federal Data Protection Act (BDSG), which permits the processing of special categories of personal data – if this is necessary for the exercise of rights or the fulfillment of legal obligations under labor, social insurance and social protection law and there is no reason to assume that the interests of the data subjects worthy of protection in the exclusion of the processing outweigh this. The Data Protection Conference, an association of German data protection authorities, states that processing the vaccination status of employees on the basis of consent is only possible if the consent was given voluntarily and thus legally valid, Section 26 (3) sentence 2 and (2) BDSG. Due to the relationship of superiority and subordination existing between employer and employee, there are regularly doubts about the voluntariness and thus the legal validity of the employees’ consent.

If employers are allowed to process the vaccination status of their employees, they should not copy the certificates, but only check to see if an employee has been vaccinated.

A mandatory vaccination for all german citizens is being discussed.

Greece: Corona vaccination became mandatory for nursing home staff in mid-August and for the healthcare sector on September 1. Since mid-September, all unvaccinated professionals have had to present a negative Corona rapid test twice a week – at their own expense – when they go to work.

Italy: Since October 15, Italy has become the first country in the EEA to require all workers to present a “green passport” at the workplace. This document records whether a person has been vaccinated, recovered, or tested. A general vaccination requirement has been in effect for health care workers since May, and employees in educational institutions have been required to present the green passport since September. In mid-October, mandatory vaccination was extended to employees of nursing homes.

Netherlands: Currently, there is no specific legislation that allows employers to process the vaccination data of their employees. Government guidelines for employers state that neither testing nor vaccination can be mandated for employees. Only occupational health services and company physicians are allowed to process vaccination data, for example, when employees are absent or reinstated. The Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport has announced that he will allow the health sector to determine the vaccination status of its employees. He also wants to examine whether and how this can be done in other work situations. Currently, employers can only offer voluntary testing in the workplace, but are not allowed to document or enforce the results of such tests.

Spain: Employers are allowed to ask employees if they have been vaccinated, but only if it is proportionate and necessary for the employer to fulfill its legal obligation to ensure health and safety in the workplace. However, employees have the right to refuse to answer this question. Before entering the workplace, employees may be asked to provide a negative test or proof of vaccination if the occupational health and safety provider deems it necessary for the particular workplace.

ICO opens public consultation on its Regulatory Action Policy

6. January 2022

On December 20th, 2021, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) launched a public consultation on its regulatory approach.

The public consultation is aimed at three separate documents which are the basis of the ICO’s regulatory process. The documents are the Regulatory Action Policy (RAP), the Statutory Guidance on the ICO’s Regulatory Action, and Statutory Guidance on the ICO’s PECR Powers.

The RAP in particular identifies the ICO’s risk-based approach to regulatory action and explains the factors that play a role in the ICO’s consideration before taking regulatory action. It also sets forth how the ICO cooperates with other regulators and enforces the legislation for which it is responsible.

In conjunction, the three documents illustrate how the ICO aims to enforce information rights for data subjects in the UK.

The ICO indicated that the purpose for updating these documents was to provide further explanation about its regulatory powers. It aims to give the public a chance to their views on the approach the Commissioner should take with regards to the regulatory approach of his office.

The public consultation period will conclude on March 24, 2022.

Happy New Year 2022!

1. January 2022

Dear readers,

We, the team of the privacy-ticker.com, wish you a happy new year.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your interest in our blog during the past year.

Month after month, we have brought you closer to the world of data protection and kept you up to date with judicial and supervisory decisions on European and world wide data protection law, as well as more news from the fields of data protection and data security.

We look forward to informing you again in 2022 about many interesting topics and contributions from these fields and await the new year with excitement and joyful anticipation.

We wish you only the best for the new year.

Stay safe and healthy!

Your team of privacy-ticker.com

Category: General

European Commission adopts South Korea Adequacy Decision

30. December 2021

On December 17th, 2021, the European Commission (Commission) announced in a statement it had adopted an adequacy decision for the transfer of personal data from the European Union (EU) to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

An adequacy decision is one of the instruments available under the GDPR to transfer personal data from the EU to third countries that ensure a comparable level of protection for personal data as the EU. It is a Commission decision under which personal data can flow freely and securely from the EU to the third country in question without any further conditions or authorizations being required. In other words, the transfer of data to the third country in question can be handled in the same way as the transfer of data within the EU.

This adequacy decision allows for the free flow of personal data between the EU and South Korea without the need for any further authorization or transfer instrument, and it also applies to the transfer of personal data between public sector bodies. It complements the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and South Korea, which entered into force in July 2011. The trade agreement has led to a significant increase in bilateral trade in goods and services and, inevitably, in the exchange of personal data.

Unlike the adequacy decision regarding the United Kingdom, this adequacy decision is not time-limited.

The Commission’s statement reads:

The adequacy decision will complement the EU – Republic of Korea Free Trade Agreement with respect to personal data flows. As such, it shows that, in the digital era, promoting high privacy and personal data protection standards and facilitating international trade can go hand in hand.

In South Korea, the processing of personal data is governed by the Personal Information Portection Act (PIPA), which provides similar principles, safeguards, individual rights and obligations as the ones under EU law.

An important step in the adequacy talks was the reform of PIPA, which took effect in August 2020 and strengthened the investigative and enforcement powers of the Personal Information Protection Commission (PIPC), the independent data protection authority of South Korea. As part of the adequacy talks, both sides also agreed on several additional safeguards that will improve the protection of personal data processed in South Korea, such as transparency and onward transfers.

These safeguards provide stronger protections, for example, South Korean data importers will be required to inform Europeans about the processing of their data, and onward transfers to third countries must ensure that the data continue to enjoy the same level of protection. These regulations are binding and can be enforced by the PIPC and South Korean courts.

The Commission has also published a Q&A on the adequacy decision.

Microsoft Teams now offers end-to-end encryption for one-to-one calls

16. December 2021

On December 14th, 2021, John Gruszczyk, a technical product manager at Microsoft (MS), announced, that end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is now generally available for MS Teams calls between two users. MS launched a public preview of E2EE for calls back in October, after announcing the option earlier in 2021.

IT administrators now have the option to enable and manage the feature for their organization once the update is implemented. However, E2EE will not be enabled by default at the user even then. Once IT administrators have configured MS Teams to be used with E2EE enabled, users will still need to enable E2EE themselves in their Teams settings. E2EE encrypts audio, video and screen sharing.

Certain futures will not be available when E2EE is turned on. These include recording of a call, live caption and transcription, transferring a call to another device, adding participants, parking calls, call transfer, and merging calls. If any of these features are required for a call, E2EE must be turned off for that call.

Currently, MS Teams encrypts data, including chat content, in transit and at rest by default, and allows authorized services to decrypt content. MS also uses SharePoint encryption to secure files at rest and OneNote encryption for notes stored in MS Teams. E2EE is particularly suitable for one-on-one calls in situations requiring increased confidentiality.

MS also published an in depth explanation of how this option can me turned on.

With this step, MS is following the example of Zoom, which launched E2EE in October and is making it available for larger group sessions (up to 200 participants).

EU Advocate General : Member States may allow consumer protection associations to bring representative actions against infringements of the protection of personal data

On December 2nd, EU Advocate General Richard de la Tour published an opinion in which he stated that EU member states may allow consumer protection associations to bring representative actions against infringements of rights that data subjects derive directly from the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). In doing so, he agrees with the legal opinion of the Federation of the Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen und Verbraucherverbände – Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband e.V. (Federation of German Consumer Organisations (“vzbv”)), which has filed an action for an injunction against Facebook in German courts for non-transparent use of data.

The lawsuit of the vzbv is specifically about third-party games that Facebook offers in its “App Center”. In order to play games like Scrabble within Facebook, users must consent to the use of their data. However, Facebook had not provided information about the use of the data in a precise, transparent and comprehensible manner, as required by Article 13 GDPR. The Federal Court of Justice in Germany (“Bundesgerichtshof”) already came to this conclusion in May 2020, but the Bundesgerichtshof considered it unclear whether associations such as the vzbv have the legal authority to bring data protection violations to court. It argues, inter alia, that it can be inferred from the fact that the GDPR grants supervisory authorities extended supervisory and investigatory powers, as well as the power to adopt remedial measures, that it is primarily the task of those authorities to monitor the application of the provisions of the Regulation. The Bundesgerichtshof therefore asked the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) to interpret the GDPR. The Advocate General now affirms the admissibility of such an action by an association, at least if the EU member state in question permits it. The action for an injunction brought by the vzbv against Facebook headquarters in Ireland is therefore deemed admissible by the EU Advocate General.

The Advocate General states, that

the defence of the collective interests of consumers by associations is particularly suited to the objective of the General Data Protection Regulation of establishing a high level of personal data protection.  

The Advocate General’s Opinion is not legally binding on the CJEU. The role of the Advocate General is to propose a legal solution for the cases to the CJEUin complete independence. The judges of the Court will now begin their consultations in this case.

CNIL posts guidance on use of third-party cookie alternatives

France’s data protection authority, the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), has published a guidance on the use of alternatives to third-party cookies.

The guidance aims to highlight that there are other ways to track users online than through third-party cookies, and that it is important to apply data protection principles to new technologies with tracking ability.

In the guidance, the CNIL gives an overview on what cookies are and the difference between first-party and third-party cookies, as well as the meaning of the two for personalized advertisement targeting.

It also highlights consent management and collection as being the key role to ensure a data protection compliant online tracking culture for new tracking methods and technologies. Further, the guidance also emphasizes that consent is not the only important requirement. In addition, online tracking and targeting methods should ensure that users keep control of their data and that all data subject rights are allowed and facilitated.

In light of this, the CNIL has gone ahead and published a guide for developers to help outline how to implement data protection compliant third-party cookies and other tracers in order to sensibilize people that are part of the implementation process as to how to stay compliant.

However, the CNIL also issued about 60 cookie compliance notices and 30 new orders to organizations for not offering users a data protection compliant ability to refuse cookies.

The CNIL has stepped up efforts to tackle cookie management and consent in order to ensure the rights and freedom of the data subjects in relation to their personal data online are kept safe. It has made clear that cookies are its main focus for the upcoming year, and that it will continue to hold companies liable for their insufficient data protection implementation.

Apple sues NSO Group over “Pegasus” spyware

30. November 2021

On November 25th, Apple announced in a press release that it has filed a lawsuit against NSO Group Technologies Ltd. (NSO Group) to hold them accountable for their spy software “Pegasus”.

NSO Group is a technology company that supplies surveillance software for governments and government agencies. Applications like Pegasus exploit vulnerabilities in software to infect the target’s devices with Trojans. Pegasus is a spyware that can be secretly installed on cell phones (and other devices) running most iOS and Android versions. Pegasus is not a single exploit, but a series of exploits that exploit many vulnerabilities in the system. Some of the exploits used by Pegasus are zero-click, which means that they can be executed without any interaction from the victim. It is reorted to be able to read text messages, track calls, collect passwords, track location, access the microphone and camera of the targeted device, extract contacts, photos, web browsing history, settings and collect information from apps.

NSO Group is accused of selling its software to authoritarian governments, which use it to monitor journalists and the opposition. Accusations that the company regularly denies. According to an investigation done by a global consortium of journalists of 17 media oganizations, Pegasus has been used to monitor female journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and high-ranking politicians. There are even reports suggesting it is even used by Mexican drug cartels to target and intimidate Mexican journalists. Among the more famous confirmed Pegasus victims are Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

Apple wants to prevent “further abuse and harm” to Apple users. The lawsuit also demands unspecified compensation for spying on users.

In the press release Apple states:

NSO Group and its clients devote the immense resources and capabilities of nation-states to conduct highly targeted cyberattacks, allowing them to access the microphone, camera, and other sensitive data on Apple and Android devices. To deliver FORCEDENTRY to Apple devices, attackers created Apple IDs to send malicious data to a victim’s device — allowing NSO Group or its clients to deliver and install Pegasus spyware without a victim’s knowledge. Though misused to deliver FORCEDENTRY, Apple servers were not hacked or compromised in the attacks.

Ivan Krstić, head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture is quoted:

In a free society, it is unacceptable to weaponize powerful state-sponsored spyware against those who seek to make the world a better place

Apple has announced the lawsuit contains new information about the so-called ForcedEntry exploit for a now-closed vulnerability that NSO Group used to “break into a victim’s Apple device and install the latest version of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware program,” according to Apple’s press release. The vulnerability was originally discovered by Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto. Apple says it will support organizations like Citizen Lab and Amnesty Tech in their work, and will donate $10 million and any compensation from the lawsuit to organizations involved in researching and protecting against cyber surveillance. The company will also support Citizen Lab with free technology and technical assistance.

Apple is the second major company to sue NSO Group after WhatsApp Inc. and its parent company Meta Platforms, Inc.(then Facebook, Inc.) filed a complaint against NSO Group in 2019. The allogation of that lawsuit is that NSO Group unlawfully exploited WhatsApp’s systems to monitor users.

In early November 2021, the US Department of Commerce placed NSO Group on its “Entity List”. The justification for this step states that Pegasus was used to monitor government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy staff. On the “Entity List,” the U.S. government lists companies, individuals or governments whose activities are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States. Trade with these companies is subject to strict restrictions and in some cases is only possible with an exemption from the Department.

EU commission working on allowing automated searches of the content of private and encrypted communications

25. November 2021

The EU Commission is working on a legislative package to combat child abuse, which will also regulate the exchange of child pornography on the internet. The scope of these regulations is expected to include automated searches for private encrypted communications via messaging apps.

When questioned, Olivier Onidi, Deputy Director General of the Directorate-General Migration and Home Affairs at the European Commission, said the proposal aims to “cover all forms of communication, including private communication”.

The EU Commissioner of Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, declared the fight against child sexual abuse to be her top priority. The current Slovenian EU Council Presidency has also declared the fight against child abuse to be one of its main priorities and intends to focus on the “digital dimension”.

In May 2021, the EU Commission, the Council and the European Parliament reached a provisional agreement on an exemption to the ePrivacy Directive that would allow web-based email and messaging services to detect, remove, and report child sexual abuse material. Previously, the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) had extended the legal protection of the ePrivacy Directive to private communications related to electronic messaging services. Unlike the General Data Protection Regulation, the ePrivacy Directive does not contain a legal basis for the voluntary processing of content or traffic data for the purpose of detecting child sexual abuse. For this reason, such an exception was necessary.

Critics see this form of preventive mass surveillance as a threat to privacy, IT security, freedom of expression and democracy. A critic to the agreement states:

This unprecedented deal means all of our private e-mails and messages will be subjected to privatized real-time mass surveillance using error-prone incrimination machines inflicting devastating collateral damage on users, children and victims alike.

However, the new legislative initiative goes even further. Instead of allowing providers of such services to search for such content on a voluntary basis, all providers would be required to search the services they offer for such content.

How exactly such a law would be implemented from a technical perspective will probably not be clear from the text of the law and is likely to be left up to the providers.
One possibility would be that software checks the hash of an attachment before it is sent and compares it with a database of hashes that have already been identified as illegal once. Such software is offered by Microsoft, for example, and such a database is operated by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children in the United States. A hash is a kind of digital fingerprint of a file.
Another possibility would be the monitoring technology “client-side scanning”. This involves scanning messages before they are encrypted on the user’s device. However, this technology has been heavily criticized by numerous IT security researchers and encryption software manufacturers in a joint study. They describe CSS as a threat to privacy, IT security, freedom of expression and democracy, among other things because the technology creates security loopholes and thus opens up gateways for state actors and hackers.

The consequence of this law would be a significant intrusion into the privacy of all EU citizens, as every message would be checked automatically and without suspicion. The introduction of such a law would also have massive consequences for the providers of encrypted messaging services, as they would have to change their software fundamentally and introduce corresponding control mechanisms, but without jeopardizing the security of users, e.g., from criminal hackers.

There is another danger that must be considered: The introduction of such legally mandated automated control of systems for one area of application can always lead to a lowering of the inhibition threshold to use such systems for other purposes as well. This is because the same powers that are introduced in the name of combating child abuse could, of course, also be introduced for investigations in other areas.

It remains to be seen when the relevant legislation will be introduced and when and how it will be implemented. Originally, the bill was scheduled to be presented on December 1st, 2021, but this item has since been removed from the Commission’s calendar.

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