Category: International Data Transfers

New EU SCC must be used as of now

29. September 2021

In June 2021, the European Commission published the long-awaited new Standard Contractual Clauses (SCC) for the transfers of personal data to so-called third countries under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (please see our blog post). These new SCC modules replace the three 10-year-old SCC sets that were adopted under the EU Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and thus could not meet the requirements of the GDPR for data transfers to third countries, nor the significant Schrems II ruling of July 16th, 2020 (please see our blog post). The transfer of data to third countries has not only recently become problematic and a focus of supervisory authorities.

As of Monday, September 27th, 2021, these new SCC must be used for new contracts entered into after September 26th, 2021, and for new processing activities that begin after September 26th, if the contract or processing activity involves the transfer of personal data to so-called inadequate third countries. These are countries outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) not deemed to have an adequate level of data protection by an adequacy decision of the European Commission.

Contracts signed before September 27th, 2021, based on the old SCC will still be considered adequate until December 27th, 2022. For these contracts, the old SCCs already signed can be maintained in the meantime as long as the processing of personal data that is the subject of the contract in question does not change. The SCC used for these contracts must be updated to the new SCC, or other data transfer mechanisms in accordance with the GDPR, by December 27th, 2022. As of that date, all SCC used as safeguards for data transfers to inadequate third countries must be the new SCC.

EU Commission publishes Draft Adequacy Decision for South Korea

25. June 2021

On 16 June 2021, the European Commission published the draft adequacy decision for South Korea and transmitted it to the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) for consultation. Thus, the Commission launched the formal procedure towards the adoption of the adequacy decision. In 2017, the Commission announced to prioritise discussions on possible adequacy decisions with important trading partners in East and South-East Asia, starting with Japan and South Korea. The adequacy decision for Japan was already adopted in 2019.

In the past, the Commission diligently reviewed South Korea’s law and practices with regards to data protection. In the course of ongoing negotiations with South Korea, the investigative and enforcement powers of the Korean data protection supervisory authority “PIPC” were strengthened, among other things. After the EDPB has given its opinion, the adequacy decision will need to be approved by a committee composed of representatives of the EU Member States.

The decision of an adequate level of protection pursuant to Art. 45 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the Commission is one of the possibilities to transfer personal data from the EU to a third-country in a GDPR-compliant manner. The adequacy decision will serve as an important addition to the free trade agreement and a strengthening of cooperation between the EU and South Korea. Věra Jourová, the Commission’s Vice-President for Values and Transparency, expressed after launching the formal procedure:

“This agreement with the Republic of Korea will improve the protection of personal data for our citizens and support business in dynamic trade relations. It is also a sign of an increasing convergence of data protection legislation around the world. In the digitalised economy, free and safe data flows are not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Especially in light of the Schrems II decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the adequacy decision for South Korea will be an invaluable asset for European and South Korean companies conducting business with each other.

CJEU ruling on One-Stop-Shop mechanism

On June 15th, 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that “under certain conditions, a national supervisory authority may exercise its power to bring any alleged infringement of the GDPR before a court of a member state, even though that authority is not the lead supervisory authority”. It grants each supervisory authority the power to bring matters within its supervisory area before the courts. If a non-lead supervisory authority wishes to bring cross-border cases to court, it can do so under the so-called emergency procedure under Article 66 of the GDPR.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides that the data protection authority of the country in which a company has its principal place of business in the EU has primary jurisdiction for cross-border proceedings against such companies (the so-called one-stop-shop principle). Facebook and a number of other international companies have their EU headquarters in Ireland. The Irish data protection authority has been criticised several times for dragging out numerous important cases against tech companies. The CJEU’s ruling is likely to lead to more enforcement proceedings by local data protection authorities.

In 2015 – before the GDPR came into force – the Belgian data protection authority filed a lawsuit in Belgian courts against Facebook’s collection of personal data via hidden tracking tools. These tracking tools even tracked users without Facebook accounts. After the GDPR came into force, Facebook argued that lawsuits against data protection violations could only be filed in Ireland. A court of appeal in Brussels then referred the question to the ECJ as to whether proceedings against Facebook were admissible in Belgium. This has now been confirmed by the ECJ. The Belgian court is now free to make a final decision (please see our blog post).

The CJEU has now ruled that, in principle, the lead data protection authority is responsible for prosecuting alleged GDPR violations if they involve cross-border data processing. The data processing must therefore take place in more than one Member State or have an impact on individuals in several member states. However, it is also specified that the “one-stop-shop” principle of the GDPR obliges the lead authority to cooperate closely with the respective local supervisory authority concerned. In addition, local data protection authorities may also have jurisdiction pursuant to Art. 56 (2) and Art. 66 GDPR. According to the CJEU, if the respective requirements of these provisions are met, a local supervisory authority may also initiate legal proceedings. The CJEU has clarified that actions by non-lead data protection authorities can still be upheld if they are based on the Data Protection Directive, the predecessor of the GDPR.

The EU consumer association BEUC called the ruling a positive development. BEUC Director General Monique Goyens said:

Most Big Tech companies are based in Ireland, and it should not be up to that country’s authority alone to protect 500 million consumers in the EU.

While Facebook’s associate general counsel Jack Gilbert said:

We are pleased that the CJEU has upheld the value and principles of the one-stop-shop mechanism, and highlighted its importance in ensuring the efficient and consistent application of GDPR across the EU.

EDPB adopts final Recommendation 01/2020 on Supplementary Measures for Data Transfers to Third Countries

22. June 2021

On June 21st, 2021 during its 50th plenary session, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) adopted a final version of its recommendations on the supplementary measures for data transfers.

In its recent judgment C-311/18 (Schrems II) the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has decided that, while the Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) are still a valid data transfer mechanism, controllers or processors, acting as exporters, are responsible for verifying, on a case-by-case basis and where appropriate, in collaboration with the importer in the third country, if the law or practice of the third country impinges on the effectiveness of the appropriate safeguards contained in the Article 46 GDPR transfer tools. In the cases where the effectiveness of appropriate safeguards is reduced due to the legal situation in the third country, exporters may need to implement additional measures that fill the gaps.

To help exporters with the complex task of assessing third countries and identifying appropriate supplementary measures where needed, the EDPB has adopted this recommendation. They highlight steps to follow, potential information sources as well as non-exhaustive examples of supplementary measures that are meant to help exporters make the right decisions for data transfers to third countries.

The recommendations advise exporters to follow the following steps in order to have a good overview of data transfers and potential supplementary measures necessary:

1. Know the data transfers that take place in your organization – being aware of where data flows is essential to identify potentially necessary supplementary measures;

2. Verify the transfer tool that each transfer relies on and its validity as well as application to the transfer;

3. Assess if a law or a practice in the third country impinges on the effectiveness of the transfer tool;

4. Identify and adopt supplementary measures that are necessary to bring the level of protection of the data transferred up to the EU standard;

5. Take formal procedural steps that may be required by the adoption of your supplementary measure, depending on the transfer tool you are relying on;

6. Re-evaluate the level of protection of the data you transfer at appropriate intervals and monitor any potential changes that may affect the transfer.

The EDPB Chair, Andrea Jelinek, stated that “the effects of Schrems II cannot be underestimated”, and that the “EDPB will continue considering the effects of the Schrems II ruling and the comments received from stakeholders in its future guidance”.

The recommendations clearly highlight the importance of exporters to understand and keep an eye on their data transfers to third countries. In Germany, the Supervisory Authorities have already started (in German) to send out questionnaires to controllers regarding their data transfers to third countries and the tools used to safeguard the transfers. Controllers in the EU should be very aware of the subject of data transfers in their companies, and prepare accordingly.

EDPS investigating EU institutions’ use of US cloud services

2. June 2021

The European Data Protection Supervisor (“EDPS”) announced on May 27th, 2021, that it has opened an investigation into the use of Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon’s AWS by EU institutions and has begun an audit of the European Commission’s use of Microsoft Office 365. The EDPS is the EU.s data protection authority.

The EDPS is the independent supervisory authority responsible for monitoring the processing of personal data by EU institutions and bodies.

Both investigations are a consequence of the Schrems II ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) on June 16th, 2020 (please see our blog post). The CJEU ruled that U.S. its intense surveillance practices do not comply with the GDPR’s data protection standards. Accordingly, personal data of EU citizens may not be processed in the U.S. solely on the basis of the protection provided by so-called standard contractual clauses. Controllers, in cooperation with data importers, must examine and adapt additional measures on a case-by-case basis to ensure a level of data protection equivalent to the GDPR.

The investigations will examine whether EU institutions are complying with data protection rules and the Schrems II ruling.

Wojciech Wiewiórowski, EDPS head, is quoted in the EDPS announcement:

I am aware that the “Cloud II contracts” were signed in early 2020 before the “Schrems II” judgement and that both Amazon and Microsoft have announced new measures with the aim to align themselves with the judgement. Nevertheless, these announced measures may not be sufficient to ensure full compliance with EU data protection law and hence the need to investigate this properly.

If the EDPS finds that Cloud II contracts do not comply with the Schrems II ruling, this could force EU institutions to switch to alternative cloud providers based in the EU in the future, as the EDPS has stated that he wants EU institutions to lead by example.

High Court dismisses Facebook’s procedural complaints in Data Transfer Case

18. May 2021

On Friday, May 14th 2021, the Irish High Court dismissed all of Facebook’s procedural complaints in a preliminary decision from Ireland’s Data Protection Commission regarding data transfers from the EU to the U.S. It rejected Facebook’s claims that the privacy regulator had given it too little time to respond or issued a judgment prematurely.

If finalized, the preliminary decision could force the social-media company to suspend sending personal information about EU users to Facebook’s servers in the U.S. While the decision of the High Court was only a procedural one, experts warn that the logic in Ireland’s provisional order could apply to other large tech companies that are subject to U.S. surveillance laws. This could potentially lead to a widespread disruption of trans-Atlantic data flows.

Facebook addressed the preliminary decision, stating that Friday’s court decision was procedural and that it planned to defend its data transfers before the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC). It added that the regulator’s preliminary decision could be “damaging not only to Facebook, but also to users and other businesses.”

However, the Irish DPC still needs to finalize its draft decision ordering a suspension of data transfers and submit it to other EU privacy regulators for approval before it comes into effect. That process could take months, not counting potential other court challenges by Facebook.

Microsoft Cloud Services will store and process EU data within the EU

7. May 2021

On May 7th, 2021, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, announced in a blogpost that Microsoft will enable its EU commercial and public sector customers to store all their data in the EU. Microsoft calls this policy “EU Data Boundary” and it will apply across all of Microsoft’s core business cloud services, such as Azure, Microsoft 365 and Dynamics 365. Microsoft is the first big cloud provider to take such a step. The transition is intended to be done by the end of 2022.

This move can be seen as a reaction to the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) “Shrems II” ruling in June 2020 (please see our blogpost), in which the CJEU ruled that the “EU-US-Privacy Shield” does not provide sufficient protection and therefore invalidating the agreement. The “Privacy Shield” was a framework for regulating the transatlantic exchange of personal data for commercial purposes between the EU and the USA.

However, the CJEU has clarified that server location and standard contractual clauses alone are not sufficient to meet the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is because under U.S. law such as the “CLOUD Act”, U.S. law enforcement agencies have the power to compel U.S.-based technology companies to hand over requested data stored on servers, regardless of whether the data is stored in the U.S. or on foreign soil. So even with Microsoft’s proposed changes, U.S. authorities would still be able to access EU citizens’ personal data stored in the EU.

Microsoft believes it has found a way around the U.S. intelligence agencies: The U.S. intelligence agencies’ right of access could be technically worked around if customers effectively protected their data in the cloud themselves. To do this, customers would have to encrypt the data with a cryptographic key. In such a case, it would not be Microsoft that would manage the keys, but the customer themselves, and it would not be possible for Microsoft to hand over the keys to the US intelligence agencies. Microsoft also states that they are going above and beyond with their “Defending your Data” (please see our blogpost) measures to protect their customers’ data.

These measures by Microsoft are a step in the direction of a GDPR-compliant use of cloud applications, but whether they are sufficient to meet the high requirements of the GDPR may be doubted given the far-reaching powers of the US intelligence agencies. The reference to the possibility that users can encrypt their data themselves and keep the keys should help to comply with EU data protection standards, but must also be implemented in practice. Microsoft will have to educate its customers accordingly.

The GDPR-compliant transfer of personal data of EU citizens to the US remains uncertain territory, although further positive signals can be observed. For example, the new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden recently showed itself open to concluding a new comprehensive data protection agreement with the EU.

EDPB adopts opinion on draft UK adequacy decisions

16. April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EU and South Korea complete adequacy talks

6. April 2021

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

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

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

Microsoft Exchange Target of Hacks

29. March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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