Google Analytics is a popular tool used by website owners across the world to observe and measure user engagement. In February 2022, the French Data Protection Regulator, CNIL, ruled that use of Google Analytics was a breach of GDPR. This followed a similar decision by Austrian Data Protection Authority in January.
Is a website owner processing personal data by making use of Google Analytics? On the face of it, the answer should be no. Google Analytics only collects information about website visitors, such as which pages they access and where they link from. The website owners do not see any personal data about visitors. However, Google does assign a unique user identification number to each visitor which it can use to potentially identify visitors by combining it with other internal resources (just think of the vast amount of information which is collected by Google’s other services).
The fact that the above mentioned French and Austrian decisions ruled that analytics information is personal data under GDPR does not in its itself make the use of Google Analytics unlawful. Of course website owners need to find a GDPR Article 6 condition for processing (Lawfulness) but this is not an insurmountable hurdle. Legitimate interests is a possibility although the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) holds the view that use of analytics services is not “strictly necessary” in terms of the PECR cookie rules and its own cookie banner, adopts the express consent approach.
A bigger obstacle to the use of Google Analytics in Europe is the fact that website users’ personal data is being passed back to Google’s US servers. In GDPR terms that is a “restricted transfer” (aka international transfer). Following the judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in “Schrems II”, such transfers have been problematic to say the least. In Schrems, the ECJ concluded thatorganisations that transfer personal data to the USA can no longer rely on the Privacy Shield Framework. 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, 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).
In France, the CNIL has ordered the website which was the subject of its ruling about Google Analytics to comply with the GDPR and “if necessary, to stop using this service under the current conditions”, giving it a deadline of one month to comply. The press release, announcing the decision, stated:
“Although Google has adopted additional measures to regulate data transfers in the context of the Google Analytics functionality, these are not sufficient to exclude the accessibility of this data for U.S. intelligence services.”
“There is therefore a risk for French website users who use this service and whose data is exported.”
The CNIL decision does leave open the door to continued use of Google Analytics but only with substantial changes that would ensure only “anonymous statistical data” gets transferred. It also suggests use of alternative toosl which do not involve a transfer outside the EU. Of course the problem will be solved if there is a new agreement between the EU and U.S. to replace the Privacy Shield. Negotiations are ongoing.
In the meantime, what can UK based website owners do. Should they stop using Google Analytics? Some may decide to adopt a “wait and see” approach. The ICO has not really shown any appetite to enforce the Schrems decision concentrating instead on alternative transfer tools including its recently announced International Data Transfer agreement. Perhaps a better way is to assess which services, not just analytics services, involve transfers to the US and switch to EU based services instead.
This and other GDPR developments will be discussed in detail on our forthcoming GDPR Update workshop on Wednesday. We also have a few places left on our Advanced Certificate in GDPR Practice course starting in April.