EU Regulators Settle Dispute Over Proper Punishment of Twitter For Breach

The EDPB uses its GDPR powers to manage a dispute between DPAs.

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) concluded its first use of powers granted under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council) to resolve a dispute among EU regulators on how to apply the GDPR in punishing a violator. In this case, the EDPB had to referee how Twitter should be punished for a data breach arising from a bug affecting users of an Android OS. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) and unnamed concerned supervisory agencies (CSA) disagreed about how Twitter should be fined for the GDPR breach, and so an unused article of the GDPR was triggered that put the EDPB in charge of resolving the dispute. The EDPB considered the objections raised by other EU agencies and found that the DPC needed to recalculate its fine that was set to be a maximum of $300,000 of a possible $69.2 million. Thereafter, the DPC revised and decided that “an administrative fine of €450,000 on Twitter” is “an effective, proportionate and dissuasive measure.”

The DPC issued a revised decision that incorporates the EDPB’s decision on the case that arose from a glitch that changed a person’s protected tweets to unprotected. Twitter users may protect their tweets, meaning only certain people, usually just followers, can see this content. However, a bug with the Android OS resulted in a person’s desire to protect their tweets being thwarted the DPC explained:

The bug that resulted in this data breach meant that, if a user operating an Android device changed the  email  address  associated  with  that  Twitter  account,  their  tweets  became  unprotected  and consequently were accessible to the wider public without the user’s knowledge.

The DPC said this breach occurred between September 2017 and January 2019, affecting 88,726 EU and European Economic Area (EEA) users, and on 8 January 2019, Twitter alerted the DPC, triggering an investigation. Twitter revealed:

On 26 December 2018, we received a bug report through our bug bounty program that if a Twitter user with a protected account, using Twitter for Android, changed their email address the bug would result in their account being unprotected.

Article 33(1) of the GDPR requires breaches to be reported to a DPA within 72 hours in most cases:

In the case of a personal data breach, the controller shall without undue delay and, where feasible, not later than 72 hours after having become aware of it, notify the personal data breach to the supervisory authority competent in accordance with Article 55, unless the personal data breach is unlikely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons. Where the notification to the supervisory authority is not made within 72 hours, it shall be accompanied by reasons for the delay.

However, Twitter conceded by way of reason as to why it had not reported the breach within the 72 hour window:

The severity of the issue – and that it was reportable – was not appreciated until 3 January 2018 at which point Twitter’s incident response process was put into action.

Additionally, Article 33(5) would become relevant during the DPC investigation:

The controller shall document any personal data breaches, comprising the facts relating to the personal data breach, its effects and the remedial action taken. That documentation shall enable the supervisory authority to verify compliance with this Article.

Consequently, Twitter had a responsibility as the controller to document all the relevant facts about the data breach and then to report the breach within 72 hours of becoming aware of the breach subject to a range of exceptions.

Shortly thereafter, the DPC named itself the lead supervisory agency (LSA), investigated and reached its proposed decision in late April and submitted it to the European Commission (EC). And, this is where the need for the EDPB to step in began.

Irish Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon explained the scope of the subsequent investigation:

  1. Whether Twitter International Company (TIC) complied with its obligations, in accordance with Article 33(1) GDPR, to notify the Commission of the Breach without undue delay and, where feasible, not later than 72 hours after having become aware of it; and
  2. Whether TIC complied with its obligation under Article 33(5) to document the Breach.

Dixon found that TIC did not comply with Article 33(1) and found unpersuasive the main claim of TIC that because Twitter, International, its processor under EU law, did not alert TIC in a timely fashion, it need not meet the 72 hour window. Moreover, Dixon found TIC did not meet its Article 33(5) obligations such that its compliance with Article 33 could be determined. However, the size of the fine became the issue necessitating the EDPB step in because the Austrian Supervisory Authority (Österreichische Datenschutzbehörde), the German Supervisory Authority (Der Hamburgische Beauftragte für Datenschutz und Informationsfreiheit) and the Italian Supervisory Authority (Garante per la protezione dei dati personali) made “relevant and reasoned” objections.

Per the GDPR, the EDPB intervened. Article 60 of the GDPR provides if a CSA “expresses a relevant and reasoned objection to the draft decision [of the LSA], the lead supervisory authority shall, if it does not follow the relevant and reasoned objection or is of the opinion that the objection is not relevant or reasoned, submit the matter to the consistency mechanism.” Article 65 also provides that where “a supervisory authority concerned has raised a relevant and reasoned objection to a draft decision of the lead authority or the lead authority has rejected such an objection as being not relevant or reasoned,” then the EDPB must step in and work towards a final binding decision. This process was installed so that the enforcement of the EDPB would be uniform throughout the EU and to forestall the possibility that one DPA or a small group of DPAs would construe the data protection regime in ways contrary to its intention. As it is, there have already been allegations that some DPAs have been ineffective or lenient towards alleged offenders.

In its mid-November statement, the EDPB said it “adopted by a 2/3 majority of its members its first dispute resolution decision on the basis of Art. 65 GDPR.” The EDPB stated

The Irish supervisory authority (SA) issued the draft decision following an own-volition inquiry and investigations into Twitter International Company, after the company notified the Irish SA of a personal data breach on 8 January 2019. In May 2020, the Irish SA shared its draft decision with the concerned supervisory authorities (CSAs) in accordance with Art. 60 (3) GDPR. The CSAs then had four weeks to submit their relevant and reasoned objections (RROs.) Among others, the CSAs issued RROs on the infringements of the GDPR identified by the lead supervisory authority (LSA), the role of Twitter International Company as the (sole) data controller, and the quantification of the proposed fine. 

It appears from the EDPB’s statement that other DPAs/SAs had objected to the size of the fine (which can be as high as 2% of annual revenue), how Twitter violated the GDPR, and Twitter’s culpability based on whether it was the only controller of the personal data or other controllers may have also been held responsible.

According to the DPC, the EDPB ultimately decided that

…the [DPC] is required to re-assess the elements it relies upon to calculate the amount of the fixed fine to be imposed on TIC, and to amend its Draft Decision by increasing the level of the fine in order to ensure it fulfils its purpose as a corrective measure and meets the requirements of effectiveness, dissuasiveness and proportionality established by Article 83(1) GDPR and taking into account the criteria of Article 83(2) GDPR.

Dixon went back and reasoned through the breach and compliance. She stressed that the GDPR infringements were largely aside and apart from the substance of the breach, which is why the administrative fine was low. Nonetheless, Dixon reexamined the evidence in light of the EDPB’s decision and concluded in relevant part:

  • I therefore consider that the nature of the obligations arising under Article 33(1) and Article 33(5) are such that, compliance is central to the overall functioning of the supervision and enforcement regime performed by supervisory authorities in relation to both the specific issue of personal data breaches but also the identification and assessment of wider issues of non-compliance by controllers. As such, non-compliance with these obligations has serious consequences in that it risks undermining the effective exercise by supervisory authorities of their functions under the GDPR. With regard to the nature of the specific infringements in these circumstances, it is clear, having regard to the foregoing, that in the circumstances of this case, the delayed notification under Article 33(1) inevitably delayed the Commission’s assessment of the Breach. With regard to Article 33(5), the deficiencies in the “documenting” of the Breach by TIC impacted on the Commission’s overall efficient assessment of the Breach, necessitating the raising of multiple queries concerning the facts and sequencing surrounding the notification of the Breach.
  • Accordingly, having regard to the potential for damage to data subjects caused by the delayed notification to the Commission (which I have set out above in the context of Article 83(2)(a)), the corollary of this is that any category of personal data could have been affected by the delayed notification. Whilst, as stated above, there was no direct evidence of damage, at the same time, it cannot be definitively said that there was no damage to data subjects or no affected categories of personal data.

Dixon also recalculated the fine that she noted was bound on the upper limit at €10 million or 2% of annual worldwide revenue after once again turning aside TIC’s argument that it independent of Twitter for purposes of determining a fine. Dixon determined the appropriate administrative fine would be about $500,000 and Twitter’s worldwide revenue was $3.46 billion in 2019 (meaning a maximum penalty of $69.2 million.) Dixon explained:

Having regard to all of the foregoing, and, in particular, having had due regard to all of the factors which I am required to consider under Articles 83(2)(a) to (k), as applicable, and in the interests of effectiveness, proportionality and deterrence, and in light of the re-assessment of the elements I have implemented and documented above in accordance with the EDPB Decision, I have decided to impose an administrative fine of $500,000, which equates (in my estimation for this purpose) to €450,000. In deciding to impose a fine in this amount, I have had regard to the previous range of the fine, set out in the Draft Decision (of $150,000 – $300,000), and to the binding direction in the EDPB Decision, at paragraph 207 thereof, that the level of the fine should be increased “ order to ensure it fulfils its purpose as a corrective measure and meets the requirements of effectiveness, dissuasiveness and proportionality established by Article 83(1) GDPR and taking into account the criteria of Article 83(2) GDPR.”

In its Article 65 decision, the EDPB judged the various objections to the DPC’s proposed decision against Article 4(24) of the GDPR:

‘relevant and reasoned objection’ means an objection to a draft decision as to whether there is an infringement of this Regulation, or whether envisaged action in relation to the controller or processor complies with this Regulation, which clearly demonstrates the significance of the risks posed by the draft decision as regards the fundamental rights and freedoms of data subjects and, where applicable, the free flow of personal data within the Union;

The EDPB ultimately decided “the fine proposed in the Draft Decision is too low and therefore does not fulfil its purpose as a corrective measure, in particular it does not meet the requirements of Article 83(1) GDPR of being effective, dissuasive and proportionate.” The EDPB directed the DPC “to re-assess the elements it relies upon to calculate the amount of the fixed fine to be imposed on TIC so as to ensure it is appropriate to the facts of the case.” However, the EDPB turned aside a number of other objections raised by EU DPAs as failing to meet the standard of review in Article 4(24):

  • the competence of the LSA;
  • the qualification of the roles of TIC and Twitter, Inc., respectively;
  • the infringements of the GDPR identified by the LSA;
  • the existence of possible additional (or alternative) infringements of the GDPR;
  • the lack of a reprimand;

However, the EDPB stressed:

Regarding the objections deemed not to meet the requirements stipulated by Art 4(24) GDPR, the EDPB does not take any position on the merit of any substantial issues raised by these objections. The EDPB reiterates that its current decision is without any prejudice to any assessments the EDPB may be called upon to make in other cases, including with the same parties, taking into account the contents of the relevant draft decision and the objections raised by the CSAs.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and, 2019-2021. 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 papagnoc from Pixabay

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