Category: Personal Data

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).

Thailand: Another delay of the Personal Data Protection Act

9. April 2021

On May 28th, 2019, the Personal Data Protection Act (“PDPA”) became law in Thailand. It is the country’s very first legislation governing data protection. Originally, a one-year grace period was determined for implementation of the requirements so that companies could prepare for the prospective liabilities in order to become compliant with the PDPA. However, on May 21st, 2020, a Royal Decree extended the implementation of the PDPA’s key provisions for another year, until June 1st, 2021 (we reported). Currently, a further postponement of the PDPA’s enforcement date is being considered.

According to new Digital Economy and Society (“DES”) Minister, consideration may be given to deferring or amending the PDPA, if the public has negative views about it. The aim is to support small and medium-sized businesses affected by the legislation since most of them are still unprepared for the new obligations and have not adjusted their internal processes yet. In addition, there is an unfortunate lack of willingness among companies concerned, as deputy permanent secretary at the DES Ministry stated. These shortcomings are reflected by the fact that some associations, including the travel and automotive industries, have already requested the deferral of the PDPA’s enforcement.

Contrary to what was initially planned, the appointment of members to the Personal Data Protection Committee is also expected to be delayed further. The Committee plays a decisive role in the approval of subsidiary legislation. The drafts for this concern consent procedures, complaint reception and expert panels.

According to the current status, the PDPA needs further adjustments and necessary regulations still need to be drafted, as many issues have been raised for consultation with regard to the PDPA since it came into effect. The main priorities on which the government intends to focus are as follows:

  • Supporting people’s access to innovation and technology,
  • Creating an ecosystem conducive to a digital economy,
  • Gearing up for digital infrastructure development, particularly 5G and smart city projects,
  • Legal development and enforcement to create a trusted digital ecosystem, especially for the PDPA and issues related to electronic transactions and cybersecurity,
  • Protecting the public from abuse on social media and the internet.

The DES Ministry expects that full enforcement of the PDPA will likely be delayed until the end of this year.

Ikea France on trial for spying on staff and customers

7. April 2021

Ikea’s French subsidiary and several of its former executives stood trial on Monday, March 22nd, 2021, after being sued by former employees on charges of violating privacy rights by surveilling the plaintiffs, job applicants and customers.

Trade unions reported the furniture and household goods company to French authorities in 2012, accusing it of fraudulently collecting personal data and disclosing it without authorization. The subsequent criminal investigation uncovered an extensive espionage system. According to French prosecutors, the company hired a surveillance company, private investigators and even a former military operative to illegally obtain confidential information about its existing and prospective employees as well as customers. The files received contained, inter alia, criminal records and bank statements. The system has been used for years, possibly even over a decade, to identify individuals who were particularly suspicious or working against the company.

After the case caused outrage in 2012, Ikea’s main parent company fired several executives at the French branch, including the former general manager. But the extensive activity in France has again raised questions about data breaches by the company.

At Monday’s trial an employee accused the company of abuse since it had wrongly suspected him of being a bank robber because its investigative system had found prior convictions of a bank robber with the same name. Others claimed the retailer had browsed through employees’ criminal records and used unauthorized data to reveal those driving expensive cars despite low incomes or unemployment benefits. Even an assistant director who had taken a year of medical leave to recover from hepatitis C was monitored to investigate whether she had faked the severity of her illness. Illicit background checks on hundreds of job applicants were also conducted. Moreover, the system was used to track down customers seeking refunds for mismanaged orders.

One of the defendants, the former head of Ikea France’s risk management department, has testified at the hearing that EUR 530.000 to 630.000 a year had been earmarked for such investigations. The former CEOs and Chief Financial Officer as well as store managers are also on trial. In addition, four police officers are accused of handing over confidential information from police files.

Ikea France said in a statement that it takes the protection of its employees’ and customers’ data very seriously. The company added that it adopted compliance and training procedures to prevent illegal activity and changed internal policies after the criminal investigation had been initiated. But at Monday’s hearing, Ikea France’s lawyers denied a system-wide surveillance. The case was also called “a fairy tale” invented by trade union activists.

The deputy prosecutor claimed, Ikea France had illegally monitored at least 400 people and used the information to its advantage. She is asking for a fine of EUR 2.000.000 against the company, prison sentences of at least one year for two former CEOs and a private investigator, as well as fines for some store managers and police officers. A total of 15 people have been charged. The company also faces potential claims for damages from civil lawsuits filed by unions and several employees.

The trial ended on April 2nd. A verdict by a panel of judges is scheduled for June 15th.

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.

EDPB released a new Guidance on Virtual Voice Assistants

31. March 2021

In recent years, Virtual Voice Assistants (VVA) have enjoyed increased popularity among technophile consumers. VVAs are integrated in modern smartphones like Siri on Apple or Google Assistant on Android mobile devices, but can also be found in seperate terminal devices like Alexa on the Amazon Echo device. With Smart Homes trending, VVAs are finding their ways into many homes.

However, in light of their general mode of operation and their specific usage, VVAs potentially have access to a large amount of personal data. They furthermore use new technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence in order to improve their services.

As both private households and corporate businesses are increasingly using VVAs and questions on data protection arise, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) sought to provide guidance to the relevant data controllers. Therefore, the EDPB published a guidance on Virtual Voice Assistants earlier this month.

In its guidance, the EDPB specifically addresses VVA providers and VVA application developers. It encourages them to take considerations of data protection into account when designing their VVA service, as layed out by the principle of data protection by design and default under Art. 25 GDPR. The EDPB suggests that, for example, controllers could fulfil their information obligations pursuant to Art. 13/14 GDPR using voice based notifications if the VVA works with a screenless terminal device. VVA designers could also enable users to initiate a data subject request though easy-to-follow voice commands.

Moreover, the EDPB states that in their opinion, providing VVA services will require a Data Protection Impact Assessment according to Art. 35 GDPR. The guidance also gives further advice on complying with general data protection principles and is still open for public consultation until 23 April 2021.

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.

SMS flaw lets hackers take control of individuals’ phones for $16

24. March 2021

Hackers have discovered a new method of gaining access to individuals’ mobile devices via text message rerouting, Vice reports. Apparently, all it takes is $16 to retrieve a person’s messages from a third-party provider and then take over the phone number and, with it, various associated accounts.

All of that is possible due to a text messaging service called Sakari that allows businesses to send SMS reminders, alerts, confirmations and marketing campaigns. The company lets business users import their own phone number in order to be contacted by the businesses. However, the service has a significant security vulnerability. Its use is enabled by purchasing Sakari’s $16 per month plan and then filling out a document saying that the signer has authority to change phone numbers. Although the document points out that the user should not conduct any unlawful, harassing or inappropriate behavior, there is no subsequent call or text notification from Sakari asking the user to confirm the consent to the transfer. That’s why it is largely effortless to simply sign up with another person’s phone number and receive their text messages instead. From that moment on, it can be trivial to hack into other accounts associated with that phone number by sending login requests, as they rely on SMS codes.

This overlooked security flaw shows how frighteningly easy it is to gain access to the tools necessary to seize phone numbers. It requires less technical skill or knowledge than, for instance, SIM jacking. It demonstrates not only the insufficient regulation of commercial SMS tools but also gaping holes in the telecommunications infrastructure, since a hacker only needs to pretend having the user’s consent.

The attack method has implications for cybercrime and poses an enormous threat to safety and security. It enables criminals to harass people, drain their bank account, tear through their digital lives or intercept sensitive information or personal secrets. At this time, it is not clear to what extent this attack method is being applied to mobile numbers.

CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless industry, stated that they immediately launched an investigation into the matter and took precautionary measures. Adam Horsman, co-founder of Sakari, responded to the insufficient authentication of their customers by saying that Sakari added a security feature where a number will receive an automated call in order to confirm the consent given. Moreover, Sakari will verify all existing text-enabled numbers. But Sakari is just one company. And there are plenty of others in this industry. As this method raises serious concerns, it is important for mobile carriers to do more to protect their customers’ privacy and security, such as notifications when registering a new device or a two-factor-authentication.

Data Breach made 136,000 COVID-19 test results publicly accessible

18. March 2021

Personal health data are considered a special category of personal data under Art. 9 of the GDPR and are therefore given special protections. A group of IT experts, including members of the German Chaos Computer Club (CCC), has now revealed security gaps in the software for test centres by which more than 136,000 COVID-19 test results of more than 80,000 data subjects have apparently been unprotected on the internet for weeks.

The IT-Security experts’ findings concern the software “SafePlay” of the Austrian company Medicus AI. Many test centres use this software to allocate appointments and to make test results digitally available to those tested. In fact, more than 100 test centres and mobile test teams in Germany and Austria are affected by the recent data breach. These include public facilities in Munich, Berlin, Mannheim as well as fixed and temporary testing stations in companies, schools and daycare centres.

In order to view the test results unlawfully, one only needed to create an account for a COVID-19 test. The URL for the test result contained the number of the test. If this number was simply counted up or down, the “test certificates” of other people became freely accessible. In addition to the test result, the test certificate also contained the name, date of birth, private address, nationality and ID number of the person concerned.

It remains unresolved whether the vulnerabilities have been exploited prior to the discovery by the CCC. The CCC notified both Medius AI and the Data Protection Authorities about the leak which led to a quick response by the company. However, IT experts and Privacy-focused NGOs commented that Medicus AI was irresponsible and grossly negligent with respect to their security measures leading to the potential disclosure of an enormous amount of sensitive personal health data.

AEPD issues highest fine for GDPR violations

5. March 2021

The Spanish Data Protection Authority, the Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD), imposed a fine of EUR 6.000.000 on CaixaBank, Spain’s leading retail bank, for unlawfully processing customers’ personal data and not providing sufficient information regarding the processing of their personal data. It is the largest financial penalty ever issued by the AEPD under the GDPR, surpassing the EUR 5.000.000 fine imposed on BBVA in December 2020 for information and consent failures.

In the opinion of the AEPD, CaixaBank violated Art. 6 GDPR in many regards. The bank had not provided sufficient justification of the legal basis for the processing activities, in particular with regard to those based on the company’s legitimate interest. Furthermore, deficiencies had been identified in the processes for obtaining customers’ consent to the processing of their personal data. The bank had also failed to comply with the requirements established for obtaining valid consent as a specific, unequivocal and informed expression of intention. Moreover, the AEPD stated that the transfer of personal data to companies within the CaixaBank Group was considered an unauthorized disclosure. According to Art. 83 (5) lit. a GDPR, an administrative fine of EUR 4.000.000 EUR was issued.

Additionally, the AEPD found that CaixaBank violated Art. 13, 14 GDPR. The bank had not complied with the information obligations since the information regarding the categories of personal data concerned had not been sufficient and the information concerning the purposes of and the legal basis for the processing had been missing entirely. What’s more, the information provided in different documents and channels had not been consistent. The varying information concerned data subjects’ rights, the possibility of lodging a complaint with the AEPD, the existence of a data protection officer and his contact details as well as data retention periods. Besides, the AEPD disapproved of the use of inaccurate terminology to define the privacy policy. Following Art. 83 (5) lit. b GDPR, a fine of EUR 2.000.000 was imposed.

In conclusion, the AEPD ordered CaixaBank to bring its data processing operations into compliance with the legal requirements mentioned within six months.

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.

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