Co-Authored By Damian Murphy and Debora Motyka Jones
In 2016, European companies doing business in the US were able to breathe a sigh of relief. The European Commission deemed the Privacy Shield to be an adequate privacy protection. For the next half a decade, this shield, as well as Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs), created the foundation upon which most global businesses were able to manage the thousands of data transfers that occur in each of their business days.
Everything changed in July 2020 when the Court of Justice of the European Union gave its seismic judgment in a case generally known as Schrems II. As we will see, the decision has a particular impact on any companies relying on, or moving to, a cloud computing strategy. Businesses have been left needing to make a risk decision with seemingly no ideal outcome. Some legal, privacy, and compliance teams may be advocating for staying away from a cloud approach in light of the decision. The business teams, however, are focused on the vast array of benefits that cloud software offers.
So what is the right decision? Where does the law stand and how do you manage your business in this uncertain time? In this four-part blog series, we’ll explain the impact of Schrems II, provide practical tips for companies in the midst of making a cloud decision, give specific advice regarding companies who have, or are implementing, Microsoft’s cloud offering (M365), and offer our view as to the future.
Schrems II and its Impact
First, let’s look at the Schrems II decision. The background to the case is well worth exploring but for the sake of brevity and providing actionable information we’ll focus on the outcome and the consequences. The key outcomes impact the two primary ways in which most data transfers between Europe and the US:
- The EU-US Privacy Shield was invalidated with immediate effect.
- SCCs (the template contracts created by the EU Commission which are the most common way in which data is moved from the EU) were declared valid, but companies using SCCs could no longer just sign up and send. A company relying on SCCs would have to verify on a case-by-case basis that the personal data being transferred was adequately protected. This process is sometimes called a Transfer Impact Assessment, although the court did not coin that phrase. If the protection is inadequate, then additional safeguards could be needed.
The consequences of the decision are still revealing themselves, but as things stand:
- The Privacy Shield (used by more than 5,000 mostly small-to-medium enterprises) has gone with no replacement in sight (although the Biden administration appears to recognise its importance with the rapid appointment of the experienced Christopher Hoff to oversee the process).
- There have been significant developments in relation to SCCs, additional safeguards, and transfer impact assessments:
- The US published a white paper to help organisations make the case that they should be able to send personal data to the US using approved transfer mechanisms.
- The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) published guidance on how to supplement transfer tools.
- The European Commission published draft replacement SCCs.
- The EDPB and the European Data Protection Supervisor adopted a joint opinion on the draft replacement SCCs requesting several amendments.
There is not a clear timetable as to when the replacement SCCs or EDPB guidance (which has completed a period of publication consultation) will be finalised. The sooner the better because there seem to be inconsistencies between them. For example, the Schrems II judgment and draft replacement SCCs permit a risk assessment (i.e., it is possible to conclude that personal data might not be completely protected, but that the risk is so small that the parties can agree to proceed), whereas the EPDB recommendations seem to deal in black and white with no shades between (i.e., there is either adequate protection or there is not). It will be important to monitor which, if any, of these drafts moves and in which direction. Whether the SCCs are supported with a risk assessment or analysis along the lines of the EDPB recommendations (or perhaps both), going forward using SCCs may be rather cumbersome particularly in a cloud environment where the location and path of the data is not always crystal clear.
Companies are therefore in something of a grey triangle, the sides of which are a judgment of the highest European Court, a draft replacement to the SCCs the Court reviewed in its judgment, and draft guidance about additional safeguards. In part two of the series, we will offer companies some practical guidance on how to move forward in light of this grey triangle.
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