So, back in 2013, the revelations of the massive and indiscriminate surveillance conducted by the US authorities have prompted EU demands regarding the strengthening of the Safe Harbour mechanism.
As you may well be aware by now, the conclusion of the very lengthy negotiations between the EU and the U.S. for the new EU-US Safe Harbour – christened “EU-US Privacy Shield” and intended to replace the former Safe Harbour Agreement – has apparently come to an end.
Which seem to be quite good news, considering how intricate those negotiations were.
Certainly, the approval of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), according to which, upon ‘cyber threat’ indicators, companies are encouraged to share threat intelligence information with the US government by being absolved of liability for data security, did not help the case. Indeed, this undoubtedly poses a problem for the EU when such information includes some European citizens’ personal data.
Similarly, the delays on the proposed Judicial Redress Act, which would allow European citizens to seek redress against the US if law enforcement agencies misused their personal data, only added up to the existing complication.
The fact that negotiators were running against the clock was another stressful point.
Time was pressing for companies which rely on the Safe Harbour framework to freely transfer data between the United States and the European Union. Indeed, last October, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the Safe Harbour decision was invalid (case C-362/14). Consequently, companies had to rely on other legal basis to justify the transfers of personal data to the US.
Moreover, the Article 29 Working Party established the end of January as the turning point date where it would all necessary and appropriate action if no alternative was provided.
The end of January indeed passed and at the beginning of February the conclusion of the negotiations was finally announced.
However no bilateral agreement was really reached, as the new framework is based on “an exchange of letters” with written binding assurances.
The US have indeed offered to address the concerns regarding the access of its authorities to personal data transferred under the Safe Harbour scheme by creating an entity aiming to control that such activity is not excessive. Moreover, access to information by public authorities will be subject to clear limitations, safeguards, and oversight mechanisms.
Thus said, the conclusion of these negotiations represent good news. At least in theory. Certainly, in the EU Commission own words, the new framework “will protect the fundamental rights of Europeans where their data is transferred to the United States and ensure legal certainty for businesses“.
The EU Commission further stated that the new mechanism reflects the requirements set out by the European Court of Justice in its Schrems ruling, namely by providing “stronger obligations on companies in the U.S. to protect the personal data of Europeans and stronger monitoring and enforcement by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), including through increased cooperation with European Data Protection Authorities.”
Moreover, it said that the new mechanism “includes commitments by the U.S. that possibilities under U.S. law for public authorities to access personal data transferred under the new arrangement will be subject to clear conditions, limitations and oversight, preventing generalised access.”
It appears that mass and indiscriminate surveillance would constitute a violation of the agreement. However, it would still be permissible if a targeted access would not be possible.
Furthermore, “Europeans will have the possibility to raise any enquiry or complaint in this context with a dedicated new Ombudsperson.” This independent entity is yet to be appointed.
The cornerstones of the arrangement therefore seem to be the obligations impending on companies handling personal data of EU data subjects, the restriction on the US government access and the judicial redress possibilities.
A joint annual review is intended to be put in place in order to monitor the functioning of the agreement
Nevertheless, in spite of what is optimistically expected and what one is lead to believe by the EU Commission’s own press release, one must wonder… What has really been achieved in practice?
To begin with, it seems that we are supposed to rely on a declaration by the US authorities on their interpretation regarding surveillance.
Unsurprisingly, many fail to see in what way this new framework is fundamentally different from the Safe Harbour, let alone that it complies with the requirements set out by the CJEU in the Schrems ruling. Hence, it is perhaps expectable that the CJEU will invalidate it on the same grounds it invalidated the Safe Harbour framework.
While US access to EU citizen’s data is expected to be limited to what is necessary and proportionate, as the devil is generally in the details, one must legitimately ask what is to be deemed necessary and proportionate in regards of such surveillance.
It is indeed unavoidable to think that such a framework does not ensure the proper protection of the fundamental rights of Europeans where their data is transferred to the US, nor provide sEU citizens with adequate legal means to redress violations, namely in regards of possible interception by US security agencies.
Anyway, at the moment, the ‘Ombudsperson’ has not yet been set up by the US nor any adequacy decision has been drafted by the EU Commission.
What does this mean in practice?
Well, as transfers to the United States cannot take place on the basis of the invalidated Safe Harbour decision, transfers of data to the USA still lack any legal basis and companies will have to rely upon on alternative legal basis, such as Binding Corporate Rules, Model Contract Clauses or the derogations in Article 26(1).
However, the EU data protection authorities (DPAs) did not exclude the possibility, in particular cases, of preventing companies to adopt new binding corporate rules (BCRs) or install model contract clauses regarding new data transfer agreements. It will be assessed if personal data transfers to the United States can occur under these transfer mechanisms. However, the fact that the data transferred under these methods are subject to surveillance by U.S. national security agencies mechanism is the same issue which lead the CJEU to rule the Safe Harbour Framework as invalid.
In the meantime, the Art.29WP expects to receive, by the end of February, the relevant documents in order to assess its content and if it properly answers the concerns raised by the Schrems judgement.
It further outlined that framework for intelligence activities should be orientated by four ‘essential guarantees’:
A. Processing should be based on clear, precise and accessible rules: this means that anyone who is reasonably informed should be able to foresee what might happen with her/his data where they are transferred;
B. Necessity and proportionality with regard to the legitimate objectives pursued need to be demonstrated: a balance needs to be found between the objective for which the data are collected and accessed (generally national security) and the rights of the individual;
C. An independent oversight mechanism should exist, that is both effective and impartial: this can either be a judge or another independent body, as long as it has sufficient ability to carry out the necessary checks;
D. Effective remedies need to be available to the individual: anyone should have the right to defend her/his rights before an independent body.
Thus said, an ‘adequacy decision’ still has to be drafted and, after consultation of the Art.29WP, approved by the College of Commissioners. In parallel, the U.S. Department of Commerce is expected to implement the agreed-upon mechanisms.
So, let’s wait and see how it goes from here…