Last July, the new US-EU Privacy Shield framework became effective. The Privacy Shield replaced the International Safe Harbor Privacy Principles (commonly known as “Safe Harbor”) which had been in place since 2000. Under the EU Data Protection Directive, companies can only transfer data outside of the EU to a country deemed to have an “adequate” level of data protection, and the US (which takes a sectoral approach to data privacy and has no comprehensive national data privacy law) is not one of those countries. Given the importance of EU-US data transfer in the global economy, the Safe Harbor principles were developed as an entity-level, instead of country-level, adequacy mechanism, to allow a US company to achieve a level of adequacy (in the eyes of the EU) which allowed EU-US data transfers with that company to take place. Safe Harbor served as an alternative to two other entity-level adequacy mechanisms: standard contract clauses (SCCs, also known as model contract clauses), which are separately required for each EU company transferring data to a US entity making them difficult to scale, and binding corporate rules (BCRs), which require Board of Directors approval and significant time and resources and have only been implemented by very large multinational companies. (There is also an individual-level adequacy mechanism – direct consent.)
Everything changed in October 2015, when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) released its decision in a case brought against Facebook brought by Austrian citizen Max Schrems. The ECJ held that the Safe Harbor framework did not provide adequate privacy protections to EU individuals, and was therefore invalid. Among other reasons for invalidation, the ECJ found broad US government powers to access data (including data of EU citizens) held by private US companies directly conflicted with the EU’s declaration of data protection as a fundamental human right. Given the importance of the Safe Harbor program in facilitating EU-US data transfers, its invalidation had a far-reaching impact. While the EU agreed to wait a few months before bringing any actions against companies in the Safe Harbor program which did not move to an alternative entity-level adequacy mechanism, US companies faced a difficult choice – switch to an alternative and more difficult/costly approach, such as standard contract clauses, or wait and see whether the EU and US could quickly agree on a Safe Harbor replacement before the EU’s enforcement deadline.
Fortunately, The European Commission and the US government quickly accelerated existing talks on resolving shortcomings of the Safe Harbor principles, leading to the announcement of the Privacy Shield program in February 2016. The European Commission quickly issued a draft adequacy decision for the Privacy Shield program, and despite some misgivings about the program from certain groups the European Union gave its final approval on July 12, 2016. The Privacy Shield program is made up of 7 core principles and 15 supplemental principles. Like Safe Harbor before it, it is a self-certification program, and there are a number of the principles common to both Safe Harbor and Privacy Shield. The Privacy Shield program seeks to address a number of the perceived shortcomings of the Safe Harbor principles, including protection for onward transfer of information by US companies to third parties such as their service providers, multiple ways for individuals to make a compliant about a Privacy Shield-certified company, stronger enforcement mechanisms, and an annual review mechanism. Its intent is to be a replacement entity-level mechanism which addresses the concerns around Safe Harbor cited by the ECJ in the Schrems decision, complies with EU laws, and respects EU citizens’ fundamental rights to privacy and data protection.
Challenges and Headwinds
Since the Privacy Shield program went live in July, over a thousand companies (1,234 as of December 10, 2016, according to the Privacy Shield List) have self-certified under the program. However, the Privacy Shield program, and EU-US data transfers in general, continue to face challenges and headwinds.
- Legal challenges – déjà vu all over again? After the Privacy Shield program was announced in February 2016, some groups and individuals expressed concerns about the program. When Privacy Shield was approved in July 2016, Max Schrems went on record stating his belief that the Privacy Shield framework was fundamentally flawed and could not survive a legal challenge. As the first legal challenges against Privacy Shield have been filed, we will find out how prescient Mr. Schrems’ comments are. In September, the digital rights advocacy group Digital Rights Ireland filed an action in the EU courts arguing that the EU’s finding of adequacy for the Privacy Shield should be annulled on the basis that the Privacy Shield program’s privacy safeguards are not adequate. In November, a similar challenge was brought by La Quadrature du Net, a French privacy advocacy group. The results of these challenges may result in the Privacy Shield program being very short-lived. Additionally, the ECJ is considering another challenge against Facebook referred to it by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, this time to standard contract clauses. The proponents in that case are arguing that the same concerns behind the ECJ’s Safe Harbor decision should apply to standard contract clauses. The forthcoming decision in this challenge has the potential to create a precedent that could bring down the Privacy Shield program as well.
- Other public and private actions may erode Privacy Shield’s validity. On December 1, 2016, a change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure became effective. The change was intended to give investigators more power to obtain warrants against cyber criminals using botnets or otherwise masking their identity, such as through secure web browsers or virtual private networks. Under the amended rule, law enforcement seeking to use remote access to search media and obtain electronically stored information can obtain a warrant from a magistrate judge located in a district where “activities related to a crime may have occurred” if the actual location of the media or information has been “concealed through technological means.” Since this rule is not limited on its face to servers in the US, without further clarification of the scope of this rule it is possible for it to be used by law enforcement to have a US magistrate judge issue a warrant to search and seize information from servers located in the EU. This global reach would likely be found in direct conflict with the concepts of privacy and data protection as a fundamental human right under the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Additionally, in early October, reports surfaced that Yahoo! had secretly scanned the email accounts of all of its users at the request of US government officials, which if true would likely be inconsistent with the terms of the Privacy Shield agreement. Opponents of Privacy Shield could use actions such as these as ammunition in their efforts to invalidate the program. In fact, there have already been calls for the European Commission and the EU’s Article 29 Working Party to investigate the Yahoo! scanning allegations, and according to a European Commission spokesperson statement on November 11, 2016, the EC has “contacted the U.S. authorities to ask for a number of clarifications.”
- Can any EU-US framework be adequate? The legal challenges and public/private actions cited above all lead to one fundamental question that many parties involved in the Privacy Shield program have been hesitant to ask – is there a fundamental, irreconcilable conflict between (1) the United States’ approach to privacy and (2) the EU’s commitment to privacy and data protection as fundamental human rights? If yes, the US’s sectoral approach to data privacy legislation and powers for law enforcement to obtain information from privacy companies and servers may mean that no entity-level mechanism to facilitate EU-US data transfers is “adequate” in the eyes of the EU, meaning that EU-US data transfers are approaching a dead end. While the US government has imposed restrictions on its surveillance activities in the post-Snowden world, it remains very unclear whether anything short of concrete legislation protecting the rights of EU citizens (which would run counter to US counter-terrorism activities), or a modification of the EU’s principles, would be sufficient. I suspect there may be a difference between the view of those in the EU seeking a pragmatic approach (those that believe that the importance of EU-US data transfers, including economic and geopolitical benefits, necessitate some compromise), and those seeking an absolute approach (those that believe that the EU’s belief that data protection is a fundamental human right must trump any other interests). The forthcoming decisions in the challenges to standard contract clauses and the Privacy Shield program will likely help shed light on whether this fundamental conflict is fatal to any entity-level mechanism.
So, what does all this mean? At the moment, Privacy Shield may be a bit rickety, but unless your company can effectively use standard contractual clauses or binding corporate rules, short of direct consent it’s the only game in town for US companies which need to receive data from their EU client, customers and business partners. Even SCCs may be a short-lived solution, meaning many companies may not want to invest the time, effort and expense required to adopt that entity-level approach. Due to the current state of Privacy Shield and EU-US data transfers in general, US companies may want to consider the wisdom of the “Herd on the African Savanna” approach to compliance – the safest place to be in a herd on the African savanna is in the center. It’s almost always the ones on the outside which get picked off, not the ones in the center. Unless there is a compelling business reason to be on the outside of the herd (desire to be viewed as a market leader, willingness to risk doing nothing until clearer direction is available, etc.), the safest place from a compliance perspective is to stick with the pack. While that approach is not for everyone, many companies may feel that being in the center of the herd of US companies dealing with EU-US data transfers is the safest approach while the fate of the Privacy Shield, and EU-US data transfers in general, plays out.