Commerce White Paper on Schrems II

The U.S. tries to lay out the reasons why data can still be transferred from the EU

The Trump Administration has released a crib sheet they are hoping United States (U.S.) multinationals will have success in using to argue to data protection authorities (DPA) in the European Union that their Standard Contractual Clauses (SCC) and Binding Corporate Rules (BCR) and U.S. law satisfy the European Court of Justice’s ruling that struck down the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield. And, the Trump Administration is basically arguing, sure, we spy, but most EU citizens data is not surveilled and EU governments themselves often share in the proceeds of the surveillance we conduct. Moreover, there are plenty of safeguards and means of redress in the U.S. system because, you know, we say so. It is unlikely this analysis will be very persuasive in the EU, especially since these broad arguments do not go to the criticisms the EU has had under Privacy Shield about U.S. surveillance and privacy rights nor to the basis for the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) ruling.

In a summary of its decision Data Protection Commissioner v. Facebook Ireland and Maximillian Schrems, Case C-311/18 (Schrems II), the CJEU explained:

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides that the transfer of such data to a third country may, in principle, take place only if the third country in question ensures an adequate level of data protection. According to the GDPR, the Commission may find that a third country ensures, by reason of its domestic law or its international commitments, an adequate level of protection. In the absence of an adequacy decision, such transfer may take place only if the personal data exporter established in the EU has provided appropriate safeguards, which may arise, in particular, from standard data protection clauses adopted by the Commission, and if data subjects have enforceable rights and effective legal remedies. Furthermore, the GDPR details the conditions under which such a transfer may take place in the absence of an adequacy decision or appropriate safeguards.

Ultimately, the CJEU found the United States (U.S.) lacks the requisite safeguards needed under EU law, and so the general means of transferring the data of EU citizens from the EU to the U.S. was essentially struck down. This marked the second time in the last five years such an agreement had been found to violate EU law.

Needless to say, the Trump Administration did not care for this ruling nor did the multinationals using Privacy Shield. And while those entities using SCCs and BCRs may have been relieved that the CJEU did not strike down those means of transferring data under the GDPR to the U.S., the court made clear that DPAs will need to go through these agreements on a case-by-case basis to see if they comport with EU law, too. Hence, this White Paper. The United States Department of Commerce (hereafter Commerce) explained the rationale for the White Paper as “in an effort to assist organizations in assessing whether their transfers offer appropriate data protection in accordance with the [CJEU’s] ruling, the U.S. Government has prepared the attached White Paper, which outlines the robust limits and safeguards in the United States pertaining to government access to data.”

Commerce made the rather obvious assertion that “[l]ike European nations and other countries, the United States conducts intelligence gathering activities to ensure that national security and foreign policy decision makers have access to timely, accurate, and insightful information on the threats posed by terrorists, criminals, cyber hackers, and other malicious actors.” Comparing U.S. surveillance to other nations is a bit like saying Jeff Bezos and I both made money this year. That is true, of course, but Bezos out earned me and everyone else by orders of magnitude. Moreover, whether EU nations conduct surveillance is beside the point. The CJEU took issue with U.S. surveillance and the rights afforded to EU residents for redress and not surveillance generally. It found the U.S.’s regime violated EU law.

Commerce touted “the extensive U.S. surveillance reforms since 2013” which were, of course, the result of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden revealing the massive NSA surveillance programs that were hoovering up data around the world. Nonetheless, after omitting this crucial bit, Commerce claimed “the U.S. legal framework for foreign intelligence collection provides clearer limits, stronger safeguards, and more rigorous independent oversight than the equivalent laws of almost all other countries.” And yet, the CJEU somehow disagreed with this claim.

Commerce summarized its “key points:

(1)  Most U.S. companies do not deal in data that is of any interest to U.S. intelligence agencies, and have no grounds to believe they do. They are not engaged in data transfers that present the type of risks to privacy that appear to have concerned the ECJ in Schrems II.

(2)  The U.S. government frequently shares intelligence information with EU Member States, including data disclosed by companies in response to FISA 702 orders, to counter threats such as terrorism, weapons proliferation, and hostile foreign cyber activity. Sharing of FISA 702 information undoubtedly serves important EU public interests by protecting the governments and people of the Member States.

(3) There is a wealth of public information about privacy protections in U.S. law concerning government access to data for national security purposes, including information not recorded in Decision 2016/1250, new developments that have occurred since 2016, and information the ECJ neither considered nor addressed. Companies may wish to take this information into account in any assessment of U.S. law post-Schrems II.

Again, even if all this were true (and that is a stretch with some of these claims), these arguments are irrelevant in the eyes of the CJEU. Let’s take a look at what the CJEU found so objectionable in the European Commission’s adequacy decision with respect to U.S. surveillance and the rights afforded to EU residents:

  • It is thus apparent that Section 702 of the FISA does not indicate any limitations on the power it confers to implement surveillance programmes for the purposes of foreign intelligence or the existence of guarantees for non-US persons potentially targeted by those programmes. In those circumstances and as the Advocate General stated, in essence, in points 291, 292 and 297 of his Opinion, that article cannot ensure a level of protection essentially equivalent to that guaranteed by the Charter, as interpreted by the case-law set out in paragraphs 175 and 176 above, according to which a legal basis which permits interference with fundamental rights must, in order to satisfy the requirements of the principle of proportionality, itself define the scope of the limitation on the exercise of the right concerned and lay down clear and precise rules governing the scope and application of the measure in question and imposing minimum safeguards.            
  • According to the findings in the Privacy Shield Decision, the implementation of the surveillance programmes based on Section 702 of the FISA is, indeed, subject to the requirements of PPD‑28. However, although the Commission stated, in recitals 69 and 77 of the Privacy Shield Decision, that such requirements are binding on the US intelligence authorities, the US Government has accepted, in reply to a question put by the Court, that PPD‑28 does not grant data subjects actionable rights before the courts against the US authorities. Therefore, the Privacy Shield Decision cannot ensure a level of protection essentially equivalent to that arising from the Charter, contrary to the requirement in Article 45(2)(a) of the GDPR that a finding of equivalence depends, inter alia, on whether data subjects whose personal data are being transferred to the third country in question have effective and enforceable rights.
  • As regards the monitoring programmes based on E.O. 12333, it is clear from the file before the Court that that order does not confer rights which are enforceable against the US authorities in the courts either.
  • It should be added that PPD‑28, with which the application of the programmes referred to in the previous two paragraphs must comply, allows for ‘“bulk” collection … of a relatively large volume of signals intelligence information or data under circumstances where the Intelligence Community cannot use an identifier associated with a specific target … to focus the collection’, as stated in a letter from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to the United States Department of Commerce and to the International Trade Administration from 21 June 2016, set out in Annex VI to the Privacy Shield Decision. That possibility, which allows, in the context of the surveillance programmes based on E.O. 12333, access to data in transit to the United States without that access being subject to any judicial review, does not, in any event, delimit in a sufficiently clear and precise manner the scope of such bulk collection of personal data.   
  • It follows therefore that neither Section 702 of the FISA, nor E.O. 12333, read in conjunction with PPD‑28, correlates to the minimum safeguards resulting, under EU law, from the principle of proportionality, with the consequence that the surveillance programmes based on those provisions cannot be regarded as limited to what is strictly necessary.
  • In those circumstances, the limitations on the protection of personal data arising from the domestic law of the United States on the access and use by US public authorities of such data transferred from the European Union to the United States, which the Commission assessed in the Privacy Shield Decision, are not circumscribed in a way that satisfies requirements that are essentially equivalent to those required, under EU law, by the second sentence of Article 52(1) of the Charter.

A stroll down memory lane is also helpful. EU authorities have been flagging these issues for years. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB or Board) released its most recent annual assessment of the Privacy Shield in December 2019 and again found both the agreement itself and implementation wanting. There was some overlap between the concerns of the EDPB and the European Commission (EC) as detailed in its recently released third assessment of the Privacy Shield, but the EDPB discusses areas that were either omitted from or downplayed in the EC’s report. The EDPB’s authority is persuasive with respect to Privacy Shield and carries weight with the EC; however, its concerns as detailed in previous annual reports have pushed the EC to demand changes, including but not limited to, pushing the Trump Administration to nominate Board Members to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) and the appointment of a new Ombudsperson to handle complaints about how the U.S. Intelligence Community is handling the personal data of EU citizens.

In January 2019, in the “EU-U.S. Privacy Shield – Second Annual Joint Review,” the EDPB took issue with a number of shortcomings in US implementation. Notably, the EDPB found problems with the assurances provided by the US government regarding the collection and use of personal data by national security and law enforcement agencies. The EDPB also found problems with how the Department of Commerce and FTC are enforcing the Privacy Shield in the US against commercial entities.

The EDPB also took issue with U.S. law enforcement and national security treatment of EU citizens’ personal data. The Board asserted that nothing had changed in the legal landscape in the U.S. since last year’s review but recounted its concerns, chiefly that under Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Executive Order (EO) 12333 indiscriminate data collection from and analysis of EU citizens could occur with minimal oversight and little to no redress contrary to EU law. EDPB also decried how the standing requirements in federal courts have effectively blunted the available redress for EU citizens under the Privacy Act of 1974. The Board also enumerated its concerns about the Ombudsperson “provides the only way for EU individuals to ask for a verification that the relevant authorities have complied with the requirements of this instrument by asking the Ombudsperson to refer the matter to the competent authorities, which include the Inspector General, to check the internal policies of these authorities.” The EDPB was concerned about the impartiality and independence of the current Ombudsperson, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Kenneth Krach and asserted “still doubts that the powers of the Ombudsperson to remedy non-compliance vis-a-vis the intelligence authorities are sufficient, as his “power” seems to be limited to decide not to confirm compliance towards the petitioner.”

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and, 2019-2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

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