A look at the European Data Protection Board guidance on supplementary measures – Olivia Wint

Data transfers have been a prominent topic in the data protection world in recent months, with the UK’s recent adequacy decision adding to the conversation on the topic.

On 21 June 2021, the European Data Protection Board (“EDPB”) published the final version of Recommendations on supplementary measures (the “Recommendations”). For context, the first draft Recommendations which were published in November 2020 were prompted as a result of the much-anticipated Schrems II judgment which was handed down in July 2020.

The Schrems II judgment comes after the Schrems I judgment, which in 2015, invalidated the Safe Harbour regime in 2015. The focal point of the Schrems II case concerned the legitimacy of standard contractual clauses (“SCCs”) as a transfer mechanism in respect of cross border data transfers from the EU to the US. Max Schrems, a privacy advocate argued that Facebook Ireland transferring a significant amount of data to the US was not adequate due to the US’ surveillance programmes. Schrems argued that this fundament tally affected his right to ‘privacy, data protection and effective judicial protection’.  Rather unexpectedly, the Court of Justice in the European Union (“CJEU”) declared the invalidity of the privacy shield in this case and whilst SCCs were not invalidated, the CJEU laid down stricter requirements for cross border transfers relying on SCCs, which included additional measures to ensure that cross border transfers have ‘essentially equivalent’ protection to that of the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/ 679 (“GDPR”).

As a result of the Schrems II judgment and the invalidation of the privacy shield, the estimated 5300 signatories to this mechanism now need to seek alternate transfer mechanisms and companies on a transatlantic scale have been forced to re-examine their cross-border transfers. As such EDPB’s Recommendations could not have come sooner for many in the privacy world. 

Based on the Schrems II judgment, supplementary measures are in essence additional safeguards to any of the existing transfer mechanisms as cited in Article 46 GDPR, which include SCCs, binding corporate rules (“BCRs”) and approved code of conducts to name a few with the overarching objective of the supplementary measures to ensure the ‘essentially equivalent’ threshold is met.

The EDPB’s Recommendations, outline six key steps which comprise part of an assessment when deducing the need for supplementary measures:

  1. know your transfers;
  2. identify the transfer mechanism(s) you are relying on;
  3. assess whether the transfer mechanism you are relying on is effective in light of all circumstances of the transfer);
  4. identify and adopt supplementary measures;
  5. take any formal procedural measures; and
  6. re-evaluate at appropriate intervals.

Step 1- know your transfers

Step 1 concerns organisations having a good grasp on their data processing activities, mainly evidenced through data mapping and/or records of processing activities (“ROPAs”). As ROPAs are a direct obligation under the GDPR, in theory for most organisations it will be a case of ensuring that the ROPA accurately reflects any new data processing that has occurred (with the inclusion of any third parties).

Key data protection principles should also be considered for example, lawfulness, fairness and transparency (does the privacy policy make it clear that cross border transfers are taking place?), data minimisation (is the whole data set being transferred or just what is relevant?) and accuracy (have data quality checks been conducted on the data in question?).

The Recommendations stipulate that these activities should be executed before any cross-border transfers are made and highlights the fact that cloud storage access is also deemed to be a transfer too.

Step 2- identify the transfer mechanism(s) you are relying on

There are a number of transfer mechanisms that can be relied on for cross border data transfers, such as SCCs, BCRs, codes of conduct etc and adequacy decisions and this step requires organisations to identify the mechanism that will be used for the transfer.

EDPB has noted for organisations that will be using the adequacy decision as their desired transfer mechanism, the subsequent steps in the Recommendations can be discarded.

N.B. to date, the European Commission has only recognised Andorra, Argentina, Canada (commercial organisations only), Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Israel, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, New Zealand, Switzerland, Uruguay and the UK.

Step 3- Assess whether the transfer mechanism you are relying on is effective in light of all circumstances of the transfer

This is a critical part of the assessment and requires organisations to assess/ examine the third country’s legislation and practices to ascertain the extent to which there are limitations which may mean the protection afforded as a result of the cross-border transfer is less than ‘essentially equivalent’. The Recommendations affirm that the scope of the assessment needs to be limited to the legislation and practices relevant to the protection of the specific data you transfer. The legislation and/or practices examined must be publicly available in the first instance, verifiable and reliable.

Key circumstances which may influence the applicable legislation/ and or practices include (but are not limited to):

  • purpose for data transfer (marketing, clinical research etc);
  • sector in which transfer occurs (financial, healthcare etc);
  • categories of personal data transferred (children’s data, health data etc); and
  • format of the data (raw, pseudonymised, anonymised, encrypted at rest and in transit etc).

The assessment should be holistic in nature and cover all relevant parties such as controllers, processors and sub- processors (as identified in Step 1) and should consider the effectiveness of data subject rights in practice.

Examining of legislation and practices is of utmost important in situations when:

  1. legislation in third country does not formally meet EU standards in respect of rights/freedoms and necessity and proportionality;
  2. legislation in third country may be lacking; and
  3. legislation in third country may be problematic.

The EDPB stipulates that in scenarios i) and ii) the transfer in question has to be suspended, there is more flexibility in scenario iii) where the transfer may be either be suspended, supplementary measures may be implemented or continue without supplementary measures if you are able to demonstrate and document that the problematic legislation will not have any bearing on the transferred data.

Step 4- Identify and adopt supplementary measures

If as a result of Step 3, the assessment concludes that the transfer mechanism is not effective with third legislation and/ or practices, then the Recommendations urge that consideration needs to be given to whether or not supplementary measures exist that can ensure ‘essentially equivalent’ level of protection. Supplementary measures can be in a myriad of forms which include technical (controls such as encryption), organisational (procedures) and contractual and must be assessed on a case-by-case basis for the specific transfer mechanism.

N.B. A non-exhaustive list of supplementary measures include can be found in Annex 2 of the Recommendations.

Step 5- Take any formal procedural measures

A recurring theme throughout the Recommendations is the need for a nuanced approach to be adopted when assessing each specific transfer mechanism and as such, the procedural measures that will need to be taken are dependent on the specific transfer mechanism with some mechanisms requiring supervisory authority notification.

Step 6- Re-evaluate at appropriate intervals

As with all aspects of compliance, monitoring and re-evaluating of supplementary measures should be done frequently, the Recommendations do not explicitly define a time period, however factors which could impact the level of protection on transferred data such as developments in third country legislation will cause re-evaluation.

One of the main aims of the GDPR (and also one of the key principles) is that of accountability and the EDPB’s Recommendations on supplementary measures bolsters this premise. There is emphasis placed on documentation which adequately considers and records the decision-making process at each of the six steps to ensure organisations have an accurate audit trail.

In addition to the EDPB’s Recommendations, it is important for organisations (especially global ones) to take heed of any local developments in this area. With the CNIL already publishing guidance, the ICO expected to issue guidance and the Bavarian Data Protection Authority’s ruling against Mailchimp in this area, it can be said that supplementary measures will be crux of many impending data protection developments.

Olivia Wint is a seasoned data protection professional, with over five years experience in this area. Olivia has worked in a range of sectors including local authority, third sector, start-ups and the Big 4 advising on all aspects of data protection compliance.

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