UK and EU Defer Decision On Data Flows

Whether there will be an adequacy decision allowing the free flow of personal data under the GDPR from the EU to the recently departed UK has been punted. And, its recent status as a member of the EU notwithstanding, the UK might not get an adequacy decision.

In reaching agreement on many aspects of the United Kingdom’s (UK) exit from the European Union (EU), negotiators did not reach agreement on whether the EU would permit the personal data of EU persons to continue flowing to the UK under the easiest means possible. Instead, the EU and UK agreed to let the status quo continue until an adequacy decision is made or six months lapse. The value of data flowing between the UK and EU was valued at more than £100 billion in 2017 according to British estimates, with the majority of this trade being from the UK to the EU.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the personal data of EU people can be transferred to other nations for most purposes once the European Commission (EC) has found the other nation has adequate protection equal to those granted in the EU. Of course, this has been an ongoing issue with data flows to the United States (U.S.) as two agreements (Safe Harbor and Privacy Shield) and their EC adequacy decisions were ruled illegal, in large part, because, according to the EU’s highest court, U.S. law does not provide EU persons with the same rights they have in the EU. Most recently, this occurred in 2020 when the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) struck down the adequacy decision underpinning the EU-United States Privacy Shield (aka Schrems II). It bears note that transfers of personal data may occur through other means under the GDPR that may prove more resource intensive: standard data protection clauses (SCC), binding corporate rules (BCR), and others.

Nevertheless, an adequacy decision is seen as the most desirable means of transfer and the question of whether the UK’s laws are sufficient has lingered over the Brexit discussions, with some claiming that the nation’s membership in the Five Eyes surveillance alliance with the U.S. and others possibly disqualifying the UK. Given the range of thorny issues the UK and EU punted (e.g. how to handle the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland), it is not surprising that the GDPR and data flows was also punted.

The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) explained the terms of the data flow agreement and, as noted, in the short term, the status quo will continue with data flows to the UK being treated as if it were still part of the EU. This state will persist until the EC reaches an adequacy decision or for four months with another two months of the status quo being possible in the absence of an adequacy decision so long as neither the UK nor EU object. Moreover, these provisions are operative only so long as the UK has its GDPR compliant data protection law (i.e. UK Data Protection Act 2018) in place and does exercise specified “designated powers.” The UK has also deemed EU and European Economic Area (EEA) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) nations to be adequate for purposes of data transfers from the UK on a transitional basis.

Specifically, the TCA provides

For the duration of the specified period, transmission of personal data from the Union to the United Kingdom shall not be considered as transfer to a third country under Union law, provided that the data protection legislation of the United Kingdom on 31 December 2020, as it is saved and incorporated into United Kingdom law by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and as modified by the Data Protection, Privacy and Electronic Communications (Amendments etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 (“the applicable data protection regime”), applies and provided that the United Kingdom does not exercise the designated powers without the agreement of the Union within the Partnership Council.

The UK also agreed to notify the EU if it “enters into a new instrument which can be relied on to transfer personal data to a third country under Article 46(2)(a) of the UK GDPR or section 75(1)(a) of the UK Data Protection Act 2018 during the specified period.” However, if the EU were to object, it appears from the terms of the TCA, all the EU could do is force the UK “to discuss the relevant object.” And yet, should the UK sign a treaty allowing personal data to flow to a nation the EU deems inadequate, this could obviously adversely affect the UK’s prospects of getting an adequacy decision.

Not surprisingly, the agreement also pertains to the continued flow of personal data as part of criminal investigations and law enforcement matters but not national security matters. Moreover, these matters fall outside the scope of the GDPR and would not be affected in many ways by an adequacy decision or a lack of one. In a British government summary, it is stated that the TCA

provide[s] for law enforcement and judicial cooperation between the UK, the EU and its Member States in relation to the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences and the prevention of and fight against money laundering and financing of terrorism.

The text of the TCA makes clear national security matters visa vis data flows and information sharing are not covered:

This Part only applies to law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters taking place exclusively between the United Kingdom, on the one side, and the Union and the Member States, on the other side. It does not apply to situations arising between the Member States, or between Member States and Union institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, nor does it apply to the activities of authorities with responsibilities for safeguarding national security when acting in that field.

The TCA also affirms:

  • The cooperation provided for in this Part is based on the Parties’ long-standing commitment to ensuring a high level of protection of personal data.
  • To reflect that high level of protection, the Parties shall ensure that personal data processed under this Part is subject to effective safeguards in the Parties’ respective data protection regimes…

The United Kingdom’s data protection authority (DPA), the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), issued an explanation of how British law enforcement entities should act in light of the TCA. The ICO explained to British entities on law enforcement-related data transfers to the UK:

  • We are now a ‘third country’ for EU data protection purposes. If you receive personal data from a law enforcement partner in the EU, this means the sender will need to comply with the transfer provisions under their national data protection law (which are likely to be similar to those in Part 3 of the DPA 2018).
  • This means the EU sender needs to make sure other appropriate safeguards are in place – probably through a contract or other binding legal instrument, or by making their own assessment of appropriate safeguards. The sender can take into account the protection provided by the DPA 2018 itself when making this assessment.
  • If you receive personal data from other types of organisations in the EU or EEA who are subject to the GDPR, the sender will need to comply with the transfer provisions of the UK GDPR. You may want to consider putting standard contractual clauses (SCCs) in place to ensure adequate safeguards in these cases. We have produced an interactive tool to help you use the SCCs.

The ICO explained for transfers from the UK to the EU (but not the EEA):

  • There is a transitional adequacy decision in place to cover transfers to EU member states and Gibraltar. This will not extend to EEA countries outside the EU, where you should continue to consider other safeguards.
  • This means you can continue to send personal data from the UK to your law enforcement partners in the EU, as long as you can show the transfer is necessary for law enforcement purposes. You can also transfer personal data to non-law enforcement bodies in the EU if you can meet some additional conditions, but you will need to notify the ICO.

Turning back to an adequacy decision and commercial transfers of personal data from the EU to the UK, in what may well be a preview of a world in which there is no adequacy decision between the UK and EU, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) issued an “information note” in mid-December that spells out how the GDPR would be applied:

  • In the absence of an adequacy decision applicable to the UK as per Article 45 GDPR, such transfers will require appropriate safeguards(e.g., standard data protection clauses, binding corporate rules, codes of conduct…), as well as enforceable data subject rights and effective legal remedies for data subjects, in accordance with Article 46 GDPR.
  • Subject to specific conditions, it may still be possible to transfer personal data to the UK based on a derogation listed in Article 49 GDPR. However, Article 49 GDPR has an exceptional nature and the derogations it contains must be interpreted restrictively and mainly relate to processing activities that are occasional and non-repetitive.
  • Moreover, where personal data are transferred to the UK on the basis of Article 46 GDPR safeguards, supplementary measures might be necessary to bring the level of protection of the data transferred up to the EU standard of essential equivalence, in accordance with the Recommendations 01/2020 on measures that supplement transfer tools to ensure compliance with the EU level of protection of personal data.

Regarding commercial data transfers, the ICO issued a statement urging British entities to start setting up “alternative transfer mechanisms” to ensure data continues to flow from the EU to UK:

  • The Government has announced that the Treaty agreed with the EU will allow personal data to flow freely from the EU (and EEA) to the UK, until adequacy decisions have been adopted, for no more than six months.
  • This will enable businesses and public bodies across all sectors to continue to freely receive data from the EU (and EEA), including law enforcement agencies.
  • As a sensible precaution, before and during this period, the ICO recommends that businesses work with EU and EEA organisations who transfer personal data to them, to put in place alternative transfer mechanisms, to safeguard against any interruption to the free flow of EU to UK personal data.

However, even with these more restrictive means of transferring personal data to the UK exist, there will likely be legal challenges. It bears note that in light of Schrems II, EU DPAs are likely to apply a much higher level of scrutiny to SCCs, and challenges to the legality of using SCCs to transfer personal data to the U.S. have already been commenced. It also seems certain the legality of using SCCs to transfer data to the UK would be challenged, as well.

However, returning to the preliminary issue of whether the EC will give the UK an adequacy decision, there may a number of obstacles to a finding that the UK’s data protection and surveillance laws are indeed adequate under EU law[1]. Firstly, the UK’s surveillance practices in light of a recent set of CJEU rulings may prove difficult for the EC to stomach. In 2020, the CJEU handed down a pair of rulings (here and here) on the extent to which European Union (EU) nations may engage in bulk, indiscriminate collection of two types of data related to electronic communications. The CJEU found that while EU member nations may conduct these activities to combat crime or national security threats during periods limited by necessity and subject to oversight, nations may not generally require the providers of electronic communications to store and provide indiscriminate location data and traffic data in response to an actual national security danger or a prospective one. The CJEU combined three cases into two rulings that came from the UK, France, and Belgium to elucidate the reach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive in relation to foundational EU laws.

The UK is, of course, one of the U.S.’s staunchest allies and partners when it comes to government surveillance of electronic communications. On this point, the CJEU summarized the beginning of the case out of the UK:

  • At the beginning of 2015, the existence of practices for the acquisition and use of bulk communications data by the various security and intelligence agencies of the United Kingdom, namely GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, was made public, including in a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (United Kingdom). On 5 June 2015, Privacy International, a non-governmental organisation, brought an action before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (United Kingdom) against the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Secretary of State for the Home Department and those security and intelligence agencies, challenging the lawfulness of those practices.

Secondly, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson may aspire to change data laws in ways the EU does not. In media accounts, unnamed EC officials were critical of the UK’s 2020 “National Data Strategy,” particularly references to “legal barriers (real and perceived)” to accessing data that “must be addressed.”

Thirdly, it may become a matter of politics. The EU has incentives to make the UK’s exit from the EU difficult to dissuade other nations from following the same path. Moreover, having previously been the second largest economy in the EU as measured by GDP, the UK may prove a formidable economy competitor, lending more weight to the view that the EU may not want to help the UK’s  businesses compete with the EU’s.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 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 michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Image by succo from Pixabay


[1] European Union Parliament, “The EU-UK relationship beyond Brexit: options for Police Cooperation and Judicial Cooperation in Criminal Matters,” Page 8: Although the UK legal framework is currently broadly in line with the EU legal framework and the UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), there are substantial questions over whether the Data Protection Act fully incorporates the data protection elements required by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, concerning the use of the national security exemption from the GDPR used by the UK, the retention of data and bulk powers granted to its security services, and over its onward transfer of this data to third country security partners such as the ‘Five Eyes’ partners (Britain, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada).

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