New US-EU Data Transfer Announcement: Time to celebrate?


On 25th March 2022, the European Commission and the United States announced that they have agreed in principle on a new Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework. The final agreement will replace the Privacy Shield Framework as a mechanism for lawfully transferring personal data from the EEA to the US in compliance with Article 44 of the GDPR. As for UK/US data transfers and compliance with the UK GDPR is concerned, it is expected that the UK Government will strike a similar deal once the EU/US one is finalised.

The need for a “Privacy Shield 2.0” arose two years ago, following the judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in “Schrems II” which stated that organisations that transfer personal data to the US can no longer rely on the Privacy Shield Framework as a legal transfer tool. They must consider using the Article 49 derogations or standard contractual clauses (SCCs). If using the latter, whether for transfers to the USA or other countries, the ECJ placed the onus on the data exporters to make a complex assessment  about the recipient country’s data protection legislation (a Transfer Impact Assessment or TIA), and to put in place “additional measures” to those included in the SCCs. The problem with the US is that it has stringent surveillance laws which give law enforcement agencies access to personal data without adequate safeguards (according to the ECJ in Schrems).

Despite the Schrems II judgment, many organisations have continued to transfer personal data to the US hoping that regulators will wait for a new deal before enforcing Article 44.  Whilst the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) seems to still have a “wait and see” approach, others have started to enforce. In February 2022, the French Data Protection Regulator, CNIL, ruled that use of Google Analytics was a breach of GDPR due to the data being transferred to the US without appropriate safeguards. This followed a similar decision by Austrian Data Protection Authority in January. 

Personal data transfers are also a live issue for most UK Data Controllers including public authorities. Whether using an online meeting app, cloud storage solution or a simple text messaging service, which one does not involve a transfer of personal data to the US? At present use of such services usually involves a complicated TRA and execution of standard contractual clauses. In the UK, a new international data transfer agreement (IDTA) came into force on 21st March 2022 but it still requires a TRA as well as supplementary measures where privacy risks are identified. 

Has the Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework saved DPOs hours of work? But before you break open the bubbly, it is important to understand that this is just an agreement in principle. The parties will now need to draft legal documents to reflect the agreed principles. This will take at least a few months and will then have to be reviewed by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) adding more time. And of course there is the strong possibility of a legal challenge especially if the ECJ’s concerns about US surveillance laws are not addressed. Max Schrems said in a statement:

We already had a purely political deal in 2015 that had no legal basis. From what you hear we could play the same game a third time now. The deal was apparently a symbol that von der Leyen wanted, but does not have support among experts in Brussels, as the US did not move. It is especially appalling that the US has allegedly used the war on Ukraine to push the EU on this economic matter.” 

“The final text will need more time, once this arrives we will analyze it in depth, together with our US legal experts. If it is not in line with EU law, we or another group will likely challenge it. In the end, the Court of Justice will decide a third time. We expect this to be back at the Court within months from a final decision.

“It is regrettable that the EU and US have not used this situation to come to a ‘no spy’ agreement, with baseline guarantees among like-minded democracies. Customers and businesses face more years of legal uncertainty.”

What should organisations do in the meantime? Our view is, if you have any choice in the matter, stick to personal data transfers to adequate countries i.e. those which have been deemed adequate by the UK/EU under Article 45. This will save a lot of time and head scratching conducting TRAs and executing SCCs. Where a US/non-adequate country transfer is unavoidable, a suitable transfer mechanisms has to be used as per Article 45. Of course for genuine one-off transfers the provisions of Article 49 derogations are worth considering. 

Only 2 places left on our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice course starting in April. We have also just announced three new GDPR workshops for experienced practitioners.

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