Transatlantic Data Transfers: US-EU Privacy Shield under review

When personal data travels between Europe and America, it must cross international borders lawfully. If certain conditions are met, companies can rely on the US-EU Privacy Shield, which functions as a sort of “tourist visa” for data. 

Earlier this week (19 November) the United States Federal Trade Commission finalised settlements with four companies that the agency accused of falsely claiming to be certified under the US-EU Privacy Shield framework. This news closely follows the highly anticipated second annual joint review of the controversial data transfer mechanism. 

IDmission LLC, mResource LLC, SmartStart Employment Screening Inc., and VenPath Inc. were slapped on the wrist by the FTC over allegations that they misrepresented their certification. But this is just the latest saga in an on-going debate regarding the Privacy Shield’s fitness for purpose. Only this summer, the European Parliament urged the European Commission to suspend the Privacy Shield programme over security and privacy concerns.

flying airplane

Background and purpose

Designed by the United States Department of Commerce and the European Commission, the Privacy Shield is one of several mechanisms in which personal data can be sent and shared between entities in the EU and the United States. The Privacy Shield framework thereby protects the fundamental digital rights of individuals who are in European Union, whilst encouraging transatlantic commerce.

This is particularly important given that the United States has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection, use and security of personal data. Rather, the US uses a patchwork system of federal and state laws, together with industry best practice. At present, the United States as a collective jurisdiction fails to meet the data protection requirements established by EU lawmakers.

As such, should a corporate entity or organisations wish to receive European personal data, it must bring itself in line with EU regulatory standards, known as being “protected under” the Privacy Shield. To qualify, companies must self-certify annually that they meet the requirements set out by EU law. This includes taking measures such as displaying privacy policy on their website, replying promptly to any complaints, providing transparency about how personal data is used, and ensuring stronger protection of personal data.

Today, more than 3,000 American organisations are authorised to receive European data, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, Boeing, and Starbucks. A full list of Privacy Shield participants can be found on the privacyshield.gov website.

Complaints and non-compliance?

There is no non-compliance. We are fully compliant. As we’ve told the Europeans, we really don’t want to discuss this any further.

—Gordon Sondland, American ambassador to the EU

Although the Privacy Shield imposes stronger obligations than its ancestor, the now-obsolete “Safe Harbor,” European lawmakers have argued that “the arrangement does not provide the adequate level of protection required by Union data protection law and the EU Charter as interpreted by the European Court of Justice.”

In its motion to reconsider the adequacy of the Privacy Shield, the EU Parliament stated that “unless the US is fully compliant by 1 September 2018” the EU Commission would be called upon to “suspend the Privacy Shield until the US authorities comply with its terms.” The American ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, responded to the criticisms, explaining: “There is no non-compliance. We are fully compliant. As we’ve told the Europeans, we really don’t want to discuss this any further.”

Věra Jourová, a Czech politician and lawyer who serves as the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, expressed a different view: “We have a list of things which needs to be done on the American side” regarding the upcoming review of the international data transfer deal. “And when we see them done, we can say we can continue.”

Photo: Ambassador Sondland with Commissioner Jourova in the Berlaymont.
Jourová and Sondland, via a tweet from Sondland saying he was “looking forward to our close cooperation on privacy and consumer rights issues that are important to citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.” 

The list from the Parliament and the First Annual Joint Review [WP29/255] (.pdf) concerns institutional, commercial, and national security aspects of data privacy, including:

  • American surveillance powers and use of personal data for national security purposes and mass surveillance. In particular, the EU is unhappy with America’s re-authorisation of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which authorises government collection of foreign intelligence from non-Americans located outside the United States (Remember Edward Snowden and PRISM? See the Electronic Fronteir Foundation’s explanation here)
  • Lack of auditing or other forms of effective regulatory oversight to ensure whether certified companies actually comply with the Privacy Shield provisions
  • Lack of guidance and information made available for companies
  • Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, given that 2.7 million EU citizens were among those whose data was improperly used. The EU Parliament stated it is “seriously concerned about the change in the terms of service” for Facebook
  • Persisting weaknesses regarding the respect of fundamental rights of European data subjects, including lack of effective remedies in US law for EU citizens whose personal data is transferred to the United States
  • The Clarifying Overseas Use of Data (“CLOUD”) Act signed into law in March 2018 allows US law enforcement authorities to compel production of communications data, even if they are stored outside the United States
  • Uncertain outcomes regarding pending litigation currently before European courts, including Schrems II and La Quadrature du Net and Others v Commission.

 

Image result for max schrems
Max Schrems is an Austrian lawyer and privacy activist. In 2011 (at the age of 25) while studying abroad at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, Schrems decided to write his term paper on Facebook’s lack of awareness of European privacy law. His activism led to the replacement of the Safe Harbor system by the Privacy Shield.

What happens if the Privacy Shield is suspended?

In a joint press release last month, the representatives from the EU and USA together reaffirmed “the need for strong privacy enforcement to protect our citizens and ensure trust in the digital economy.” But that may be easier said than done.

In the event that the Privacy Shield is suspended, entities transferring European personal data to the United States will need to consider implementing alternative compliant transfer mechanisms, which could include the use of Binding Corporate Rules, Model Clauses, or establishing European subsidiaries. To ensure that the American data importer implements an efficient and compliant arrangement, such alternatives would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis involving careful review of data flows, and the controller and processors involved.

Regardless of the method used to transfer data, American companies must ensure that they receive, store, or otherwise use European personal data only where lawfully permitted to do so. The joint statement noted above concluded by saying that the “U.S. and EU officials will continue to work closely together to ensure the framework functions as intended, including on commercial and national-security related matters.”

The European Commission is currently analysing information gathered from its American counterparts, and will publish its conclusions in a report before the end of the year.

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