Safe Harbor – No Future? How the General Data Protection Regulation and the rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will influence transatlantic data transfers

(ORIGINAL Posted on 1. Oktober 2015  in PETER SCHAAR. Der Blog. )

Ladies and gentlemen,

One week ago, the Advocate General at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued his vote on the Safe Harbor case of Max Schrems vs. the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.

Since 1995 when the General European Directive on Data Protection came into force, data transfers from the European Union and its member states to non-EU countries have been subject to specific privacy and security restrictions. Such restrictions do not exist only in Europe.

For example in the US several legal acts and decisions of regulatory authorities constitute the obligation to store specific data in the own country, in particular data, which have been generated by public bodies and providers of critical infrastructures. The US Federal Trade Commission has stated that a company subject to privacy obligations under US law is not allowed to avoid such obligations by outsourcing their data processing activities to offshore service providers.

The key message of Art. 25 of the 1995 GD is that transfer of personal data to a third country may take place only if the recipient in question ensures an adequate level of data protection. The adequacy shall be assessed in the light of all the circumstances surrounding the data transfer operation.

The main road to adequacy are the so-called adequacy decisions of the European Commission, that the said country ensures an adequate level of data protection. These decisions are binding for the member states. They shall take the measures necessary to comply with the Commission’s decision.

One of the most discussed adequacy decisions concerns the United States – the decision on Safe Harbor, although the Commission was of the opinion, that the US in general failed to provide an adequate level of data protection for the private sector, because of the lack of any comprehensive data protection legislation.

The Safe Harbor principles, negotiated between the Commission and the US government in the late 1990s should bridge this obstacle. The SH arrangement has been aimed at guaranteeing the adequate level of protection required by EU law for those companies, committing themselves to comply with the SH principles.

From the beginning, since the Safe Harbor was agreed in the year 2000 there has been some criticism against it. The main critical argument was that the principles do not meet the high EU data protection standards defined by the General Directive.

A scientific implementation study on SH done 2004 on behalf of the Commission came to the result that „Key concepts such as ‚US organization‘, ’personal data’,’deceptive practices’ lack clarity. Moreover, the jurisdiction of the FTC with regard to certain types of data transfers is dubious.“

It also has been criticized, that companies which declare compliance with the principles at once may profit from the Safe Harbor privileges, even if their privacy practices were not yet subject to an independent audit.

These issues remain important until our days. But after the vote the Advocate General at the CJEU (GA) issued recently, the focus lays on another question: How far practices and powers of US authorities have been ignored in the adequacy assessments.

At the first glance, law enforcement authorities, police and intelligence do not fall within the scope of the Safe Harbor agreement and therefore they do not have to be subject to the assessment. But this first impression is wrong.

As Art. 25 of the GD is pointing out, the assessment is to be done in the light of „all circumstances“ surrounding a data transfer to the third country. Even activities of authorities in the third country have to be examined. It is unclear how far this happened during the Safe Harbor assessment in the late 1990s.

But even if such assessment once took place, the result may be invalid today, because things changed dramatically after 9/11 2001. As we have learnt from Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, US government has obtained broad access to private companies’ databases, telecommunications and Internet services.

Many companies which have co-operated with the NSA – voluntarily or based on legal obligations – have been safe harborists and there is no doubt that NSA and other services have got access to big amounts of data stemming from Europe or related to EU citizens.

The PATRIOT ACT and secret Presidential Orders, issued after 9/11 provided intelligence and law enforcement agencies with a lot of new powers and simultaneously demolished many safeguards which have been introduced in the 1970s to protect civil rights and privacy.

For years it seemed that many of these changes were not on the screen of the European Commission and other European stakeholders. The implementation study on SH of 2004 came to the conclusion: „Since the new US legislation only rarely contradicts the SH principles for data covered by SH, these conflicts do not appear to undermine the level of protection for any significant flows of personal data to the United States. The controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act are essentially irrelevant for SH data flows.“ (p. 101)

But 2013, after the the beginning of the Snowdon revelations, nobody can ignore any more, that the practices of NSA, CIA and FBI introduced after 9/11 have impact on the level of data protection in the United States: The legal provisions on Government access to personal information, especially the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), do not meet the basic standards of the rule of law at least so far data of non-US-persons are concerned. The practices disclosed in the last two years and the commitments of US officials on mass surveillance provided the public with loads of evidence that the NSA and others are involved in bulk collection of personal data coming from Europe. Therefore it seems evident, that these practices have to be taken into account by the CJEU.

Another change happened in Europe: The Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, and at least since then privacy and data protection, including the independent oversight, have been fundamental rights of the European Union, as parts of the European primary law. European secondary law and European Commission’s decisions have to fulfill these requirements. Even older legislation, agreements with third countries as to PNR or TFTP and Commission’s decisions have to be reviewed in the light of Art. 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Acknowledging this, the vote of Advocate General Bot (AG) in the case of Maximilian Schrems versus the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, issued last week, is not really surprising. The vote touches two big points:

Even if the Commission decides that the level of data protection in a country is adequate, this does not prevent national data protection authorities from suspending the transfer of the data, it they are of the opinion, that in the concrete case adequacy criteria are not met by the recipient. As we have learnt from the Snowden revelations, Facebook and other Internet companies cooperated closely with the NSA and provided them with broad access to personal data stored on their servers.
The AG is of the opinion that the Safe Harbor arrangement itself is invalid, because the US, especially the intelligence services, do not provide adequate protection for the personal data coming from Europe. Therefore he proposes to suspend the Safe Harbor.

Nobody knows how the European Court of Justice will decide the case. The ruling is expected on 6 October. Perhaps you know the sentence „How the judge decides depends what he ate for breakfast“. It is correct: The vote of the advocate general is only an opinion and it does not bind anybody.

But for me it seems likely that the judges will acknowledge the vote, at least in the result. In two earlier cases, the court decided last year, on data retention and on the right to be forgotten, the judges underlined the high importance of European fundamental rights on privacy and data protection. In these cases the court went beyond the Advocate general’s vote. In the Schrems’ case the AG adapted this recent orientation of the judges.

If the CJEU will decide as proposed by the AG, this does not mean automatically the end of Safe Harbor. But the Safe Harbor arrangement must be renegotiated and at the end there might be a better safe Harbor System, meeting the principles of fundamental rights and complying with the new EU Data Protection Regulation.

Art. 41 of the Commissions proposal contains criteria, conditions and procedures for adequacy assessments, more specific than the current Art. 25 of the GD from 1995: The criteria which shall be taken into account for the Commission’s assessment of an adequate or not adequate level of protection include expressly the rule of law, judicial redress and independent supervision. The new article confirms explicitly the possibility for the Commission to assess the level of protection afforded by a territory or a processing sector within a third country.

My conclusion for today: Safe Harbor will be possible even in the future. But such a „happy end“ requires changes in the SH arrangement. And it requires effective legal guarantees for EU citizens in the US.

Also necessary is a new thinking in Europe, in particular on the fields of law enforcement and intelligence. If we urge the US to respect our privacy, European secret services have to respect fundamental rights of all EU citizens and citizens of third countries as well.

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