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On May 25, the DOJ filed a complaint on behalf of the FTC against a global social media company for allegedly misusing users’ phone numbers and email addresses uploaded for security purposes to target users with ads. (See also FTC press release here.) According to the complaint, the defendant deceived users about the extent to which it maintained and protected the security and privacy of users’ nonpublic contact information. Specifically, from May 2013 to September 2019, the defendant asked users to provide either a phone number or an email address to improve account security. The defendant, however, allegedly failed to inform the more than 140 million users who provided phone numbers or email addresses that their information would also be used for targeted advertising. The FTC claimed the defendant used the collected information to allow advertisers to target specific ads to specific users by matching the phone numbers or email addresses with data they already had or obtained from data brokers. DOJ’s complaint alleged that the defendant’s conduct violated the FTC Act and the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield and Swiss-U.S. Privacy Shield agreements, which require participating countries to adhere to certain privacy principles in order to legally transfer data from EU countries and Switzerland. This conduct also allegedly violated a 2011 FTC consent order with the defendant stemming from claims that the defendant deceived users and put their privacy at risk by failing to safeguard their personal information. According to DOJ’s complaint, the 2011 order “specifically prohibits the company from making misrepresentations regarding the security of nonpublic consumer information.”
Under the terms of the proposed order, the defendant would be required to pay a $150 million civil penalty and implement robust compliance measures to improve its data privacy practices. According to the FTC and DOJ announcements, these measures would (i) “allow users to use other multi-factor authentication methods such as mobile authentication apps or security keys that do not require users to provide their telephone numbers”; (ii) require the defendant to “notify users that it misused phone numbers and email addresses collected for account security to also target ads to them and provide information about [its] privacy and security controls”; (iii) require the defendant to implement and maintain a comprehensive privacy and information security program, including conducting “a privacy review with a written report prior to implementing any new product or service that collects users’ private information,” regularly testing its data privacy safeguards, and obtaining regular independent assessments of its data privacy program; (iv) limit employee access to users’ personal data; and (v) require the defendant to notify the FTC should it experience a data breach, and provide reports after any data privacy incident affecting 250 or more users. Additionally, the defendant would be banned from profiting from deceptively collected data.
On March 25, the U.S. and the European Commission announced their agreement in principle on a new Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework (Framework) to foster cross-border transfers of personal data from the EU to the U.S. (See also White House and European Commission fact sheets here and here.) Under the Framework, the U.S. has committed to implementing reforms and safeguards to “strengthen the privacy and civil liberties protections applicable to U.S. signals intelligence activities.” The announcement follows negotiations that began after the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) issued an opinion in the Schrems II case (Case C-311/18) in July 2020, holding that the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield did not satisfy EU legal requirements.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the CJEU’s ruling (which could not be appealed) concluded that the Standard Contractual Clauses issued by the European Commission for the transfer of personal data to data processors established outside of the EU are valid. However, the Court invalidated the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield. In annulling the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, the CJEU determined that because the requirements of U.S. national security, public interest, and law enforcement have “primacy” over the data protection principles of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, the data transferred under the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield would not be subject to the same level of protections prescribed by the GDPR. Specifically, the CJEU held that the surveillance programs used by U.S. authorities are not proportionally equivalent to those allowed under the EU law because they are not “limited to what is strictly necessary,” nor, under certain surveillance programs, does the U.S. “grant data subjects actionable rights before the courts against the U.S. authorities.”
According to the factsheet released by the White House, the U.S. has made “unprecedented commitments” that build on the safeguards that were in place under the annulled EU-U.S. Privacy Shield with the goal of addressing issues identified in the Schrems II decision. These commitments include (i) strengthening the privacy and civil liberties safeguards governing U.S. signals intelligence activities through measures that would limit U.S. intelligence authorities’ data collection to what is necessary to advance legitimate national security objectives; (ii) establishing a new, multi-layered redress mechanism with independent and binding authority “consist[ing] of individuals chosen from outside the U.S. Government who would have full authority to adjudicate claims and direct remedial measures, as needed”; and (iii) enhancing the U.S.’s existing rigorous and layered oversight of signals intelligence activities, and requiring U.S. intelligence agencies to “adopt procedures to ensure effective oversight of new privacy and civil liberties standards.” The factsheet further stated that participating companies and organizations will continue to be required to adhere to the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield principles, including the requirement of self-certification through the U.S. Department of Commerce. EU individuals will also continue to have access to avenues of recourse to resolve complaints against businesses and organizations participating in the Framework, including through alternative dispute resolution and binding arbitration.
The White House stated that President Biden will issue an executive order outlining the aforementioned commitments “that will form the basis of the Commission’s assessment in its future adequacy decision.” According to the announcement, the U.S. and European Commission “will now continue their cooperation with a view to translate this arrangement into legal documents that will need to be adopted on both sides to put in place this new Trans-Atlantic Data Privacy Framework.”
On June 22, the FTC issued a decision and order against a company operating a fertility-tracking mobile app. The order resolved claims that the company shared user’s sensitive health data with various marketing and analytics service providers to the company. The FTC filed a complaint in January claiming, among other things, that the company repeatedly promised to protect users’ personal health data but instead disclosed the data to third parties for years and did not contractually limit how those third parties could use the data. These actions, the FTC claimed, violated the FTC Act as well as frameworks under the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield and Swiss-U.S. Privacy Shield, which the company represented to users that it participated in, and require companies to provide notice, choice, and accountability for the transfer of personal data to third parties. Under the terms of the decision and order, the company is required to provide notice to users about the disclosure of their health data, obtain users’ affirmative express consent to share the information, and instruct any third party that received users’ health information to destroy the data. Additionally, the company is prohibited from misrepresenting: (i) the purposes for which it (or any entity to whom it discloses personal data) collects, maintains, uses, or discloses the data; (ii) the extent to which consumers can control the use of the data; (iii) its adherence to any privacy, security, or compliance program; and (iv) the extent to which it “collects, maintains, uses, discloses, deletes, or permits or denies access to any” users’ personal information. The FTC further noted in its announcement that it is “currently undertaking a review of the Health Breach Notification Rule and is actively considering public comments regarding the application of the Rule to mobile applications and other direct-to-consumer technologies that handle consumers’ sensitive health information.”
On August 5, the FTC Commissioners testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and discussed, among other things, the agency’s continued enforcement of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, despite the recent Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) invalidation of the framework, and their interest in federal data privacy legislation. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in July, the CJEU determined that because the requirements of U.S. national security, public interest and law enforcement have “primacy” over the data protection principles of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, the data transferred under the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield would not be subject to the same level of protections prescribed by the EU General Data Protection Regulation, and thus, declared the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield invalid.
In his opening remarks, Commissioner Simons emphasized that the FTC will “continue to hold companies accountable for their privacy commitments, including privacy promises made under the Privacy Shield,” which the FTC has also noted on its website. Additionally, Simons urged Congress to enact federal privacy and data security legislation, that would be enforced by the FTC and give the agency, among other things, the “ability to seek civil penalties” and “targeted [Administrative Procedures Act] rulemaking authority to ensure that the law keeps pace with changes and technology in the market.” Moreover, Commissioner Wilson agreed with a senator’s proposition that the enactment of a preemptive federal privacy framework would make “achieving a future adequacy determination by the E.U. easier.”
Court of Justice of the European Union invalidates EU-U.S. Privacy Shield; standard contractual clauses survive (for now)
On July 16, 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued its opinion in the Schrems II case (Case C-311/18). In its opinion, the CJEU concluded that the Standard Contractual Clauses issued by the European Commission for the transfer of personal data to data processors established outside of the EU are valid. However, the Court invalidated the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield. The ruling cannot be appealed.
In 2015, a privacy campaigner named Max Schrems filed a complaint with Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner challenging a global social media company’s use of data transfers from servers in Ireland to servicers in the U.S. Schrems argued that U.S. laws did not offer sufficient protection of EU customer data, that EU customer data might be at risk of being accessed and processed by the U.S. government once transferred, and that there was no remedy available to EU individuals to ensure protection of their personal data after transfer to the U.S. Schrems sought the suspension or prohibition of future data transfers, which were executed by the company through standard data protection contractual clauses (a method approved by the Court in 2010 by Decision 2010/87). The social media company had utilized these standard contractual clauses after the CJEU invalidated the U.S. – EU Safe Harbor Framework in 2015.
Following the complaint, Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner brought proceedings against the social media company in the Irish High Court, which referred numerous questions to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, including questions addressing the validity of the standard contractual clauses and the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield.
CJEU Opinion – Standard Contractual Clauses (Decision 2010/87)
Upon review of the recommendations from the CJEU’s Advocate General published on December 19, 2019, the CJEU found the Decision approving the use of contractual clauses to transfer personal data valid.
The CJEU noted that the GDPR applies to the transfer of personal data for commercial purposes by a company operating in an EU member state to another company outside of the EU, notwithstanding the third-party country’s processing of the data under its own security laws. Moreover, the CJEU explained that data protection contractual clauses between an EU company and a company operating in a third-party country must afford a level of protection “essentially equivalent to that which is guaranteed within the European Union” under the GDPR. According to the CJEU, the level of protection must take into consideration not only the contractual clauses executed by the companies, but the “relevant aspects of the legal system of that third country.”
As for the Decision 2010/87, the CJEU determined that it provides effective mechanisms to, in practice, ensure contractual clauses governing data transfers are in compliance with the level of protection requirement by the GDPR, and appropriately requires the suspension or prohibition of transfers in the event the clauses are breached or unable to be honored. The CJEU specifically highlighted the certification required by the EU data exporter and the third-party country recipient to verify, prior to any transfer, (i) the level of data protection in the third-party country prior to any transfer; and (ii) abilities to comply with the data protection clauses.
CJEU Opinion - EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, (Decision 2016/1250)
The CJEU decided to examine and rule on the validity of the EU – U.S. Privacy Shield. The CJEU determined that because the requirements of U.S. national security, public interest and law enforcement have “primacy” over the data protection principles of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, the data transferred under the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield would not be subject to the same level of protections prescribed by the GDPR. Specifically, the CJEU held that the surveillance programs used by U.S. authorities are not proportionally equivalent to those allowed under the EU law because they are not “limited to what is strictly necessary,” nor, under certain surveillance programs, does the U.S. “grant data subjects actionable rights before the courts against the U.S. authorities.” Moreover, the CJEU rejected the argument that the Ombudsperson mechanism satisfies the GDPR’s right to judicial protection, stating that it “does not provide any cause of action before a body which offers the persons whose data is transferred to the United States guarantees essentially equivalent to those required by [the GDPR],” and the Ombudsperson “cannot be regarded as a tribunal.” Thus, on those grounds, the CJEU declared the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield invalid.