Category: Personal Data

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.

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

19. February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

University fined for omitted notification of a data breach

4. February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Clubhouse Data Protection issues

28. January 2021

Clubhouse is a new social networking app by the US company Alpha Exploration Co. available for iOS devices. Registered users can open rooms for others to talk about various topics. Participation is possible both as a speaker and as a mere listener. These rooms can be available for the public or as closed groups. The moderators speak live in the rooms and the listeners can then join the virtual room. Participants are initially muted and can be unmuted by the moderators to talk. In addition, the moderators can also mute the participants or exclude them from the respective room. As of now, new users need to be invited by other users, the popularity of these invitations started to rise in autumn 2020 when US celebrities started to use the app. With increasing popularity also in the EU, Clubhouse has come under criticism from a data protection perspective.

As mentioned Clubhouse can only be used upon an invitation. To use the option to invite friends, users must share their address book with Clubhouse. In this way, Alpha Exploration can collect personal data from contacts who have not previously consented to the processing of their data and who do not use the app. Not only Alpha Exploration, but also users may be acting unlawfully when they give the app access to their contacts. The user may also be responsible for the data processing associated with the sharing of address books. Therefore, it is not only the responsibility of Alpha Exploration, but also of the user to ensure that consent has been obtained from the contacts whose personal data is being processed. From a data protection perspective, it is advisable not to grant the Clubhouse app access to this data unless the consent of the respective data subjects has been obtained and ideally documented. Currently, this data is transferred to US servers without the consent of the data subjects in the said address books. Furthermore, it is not apparent in what form and for what purposes the collected contact and account information of third parties is processed in the USA.

Under Clubouse’s Terms of Service, and in many cases according to several national laws, users are prohibited from recording or otherwise storing conversations without the consent of all parties involved. Nevertheless, the same Terms of Service include the sentence “By using the service, you consent to having your audio temporarily recorded when you speak in a room.” According to Clubhouse’s Privacy Policy, these recordings are used to punish violations of the Terms of Service, the Community Guidelines and legal regulations. The data is said to be deleted when the room in question is closed without any violations having been reported. Again, consent to data processing should be treated as the general rule. This consent must be so-called informed consent. In view of the fact that the scope and purpose of the storage are not apparent and are vaguely formulated, there are doubts about this. Checking one’s own platform for legal violations is in principle, if not a legal obligation in individual cases, at least a so-called legitimate interest (Art. 6 (1) (f) GDPR) of the platform operator. As long as recordings are limited to this, they are compliant with the GDPR. The platform operator who records the conversations is primarily responsible for this data processing. However, users who use Clubhouse for conversations with third parties may be jointly responsible, even though they do not record themselves. This is unlikely to play a major role in the private sphere, but all the more so if the use is in a business context.

It is suspected that Clubhouse creates shadow profiles in its own network. These are profiles for people who appear in the address books of Clubhouse users but are not themselves registered with Clubhouse. For this reason, Clubhouse considers numbers like “Mobile-Box” to be well-connected potential users. So far, there is no easy way to object to Clubhouse’s creation of shadow profiles that include name, number, and potential contacts.

Clubhouse’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policy do not mention the GDPR. There is also no address for data protection information requests in the EU. However, this is mandatory, as personal data of EU citizens is also processed. In addition, according to Art. 14 GDPR, EU data subjects must be informed about how their data is processed. This information must be provided to data subjects before their personal data is processed. That is, before the data subject is invited via Clubhouse and personal data is thereby stored on Alpha Exploration’s servers. This information does not take place. There must be a simple opt-out option, it is questionable whether one exists. According to the GDPR, companies that process data of European citizens must also designate responsible persons for this in Europe. So far, it is not apparent that Clubhouse even has such data controllers in Europe.

The german “Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband” (“VZBV”), the german federate Consumer Organisation, has issued a written warning (in German) to Alpha Exploration, complaining that Clubhouse is operated without the required imprint and that the terms of use and privacy policy are only available in English, not in German as required. The warning includes a penalty-based cease-and-desist declaration relating to Alpha Exploration’s claim of the right to extensive use of the uploaded contact information. Official responses from European data protection authorities regarding Clubhouse are currently not available. The main data protection authority in this case is the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

So far, it appears that Clubhouse’s data protection is based solely on the CCPA and not the GDPR. Business use of Clubhouse within the scope of the GDPR should be done with extreme caution, if at all.

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