The so-called "Schrems II" case was heard earlier this week. It's impossible to give this topic the treatment it deserves in a single blog post. So for now, here's a quick FAQ:
What's this case about?
Collecting personal data from the European Economic Area (aka, the "EEA") and transferring to other countries is restricted by law. It can be done, but companies have to use certain statutorily prescribed mechanisms. Those, more or less, have been the rules of the game since at least 1995 continuing through today under the new GDPR which you've probably heard a lot about.
The prescribed mechanisms have varied over the years, but one constant has been what are known as "Standard Contractual Clauses" or "SCCs." SCCs are a set of data protection contract terms that have been pre-approved by the EU data protection regulators. In the "old days" (by which we mean the mid- to late 1990s) they were called "model clauses."
If each of the EEA- and US-based counterparties to a data transfer transaction agree to bind themselves to the SCCs, then an otherwise prohibited transfer becomes permissible.
In simplest terms, the Schrems II case is trying to stop companies from being able to do that. The plaintiff's claim is that the SCCs are not valid under EU law because they fail to provide adequate levels of protection for personal data.
Why do they call it Schrems II?
Schrems is the surname of an EU qualified attorney and political and privacy activist. He and the ecosystems of activist organizations around him are serial plaintiffs. This is their second (and definitely not final) attack on EU-US data transfers.
Back under the old 1995 law, one way to conduct a permitted personal data transfer was to use the EU-US Safe Harbor Framework. If a company took a couple of (pretty minimal) steps and signed up with the US Department of Commerce to be part of the Safe Harbor, it could receive personal data from the EEA.
Spurred on by the intelligence agency surveillance scandals that occurred during the Obama administration, Schrems, then a law student, brought a series of cases trying to invalidate the EU-US Safe Harbor. After a few procedural losses and a bit of forum shopping, he finally succeeded in 2015. That case became instantly known as "Schrems I" because Schrems and his supporters were already preparing their challenge to the SCCs. And, again, that's exactly what's happening now under Schrems II.
Didn't the EU-US Privacy Shield replace the Safe Harbor
Yes. A detailed analysis of the Privacy Shield (and its all-important relationship to the GDPR) is beyond the scope of this post, so here's the summary version:
The Privacy Shield is considered a "partial adequacy decision" under GDPR Article 45. As such, it allows companies to collect/transfer EEA personal data to the US as long as the US-based recipient company is Privacy Shield self-certified.
But this case isn't about the Privacy Shield (at least not nominally—more on that in a minute) or even GDPR Article 45. As stated in the prior two FAQs, this case is about one of the other prescribed mechanisms, the long-standing SCCs which have been in existence for nearly 25 years and today fall under the aegis of GDPR Article 46.
That said, while we're still waiting on our own confirmation, it's being reported by reliable news sources that, in open court this past Tuesday, Schrems' lawyers asked the court to also invalidate the EU-US Privacy Shield—despite not having actually pled or argued for it previously (in fact there is an entirely separate case for that) and despite the fact that it derives from a statutory mechanism (GDPR 45) that is separate and distinct from the SCCs (which, again, are GDPR 46).
What happens if the European Court of Justice invalidates the SCCs
Déjà vu all over again. Things will very likely look pretty much the same as they did in 2015 when the Schrems I court invalidated the Safe Harbor. Which means there will be a long interregnum during which there will be less regulation, more unfettered transfers and lots of confusion.
You see, like the too-clever-by-half Wile E. Coyote character of Warner Brothers cartoon fame, in the first case that bears his name, Schrems thought he was going to dynamite, and thereby halt, EU-US data transfers by invalidating the Safe Harbor. But in the end, the only thing that went up in smoke was his goal of protecting data transfers.
Invalidating the Safe Harbor didn't stop transfers out of Europe to the US at all. Instead, the result in Schrems I combined with the already looming specter of Schrems II, led companies to conclude that European law was, to put it colloquially, a hot, unenforceable mess.
EU regulators, already under-staffed, under-funded and overwhelmed, were more or less paralyzed after Schrems I. So responsible, law abiding companies had to more or less make it up as they went along. Most did their best to self-regulate and relied on SCCs. Others, knowing Schrems II was imminent and SCCs thereby in doubt, used ad hoc data export/import contracts. Meanwhile, the less law abiding were all too happy to flout the spirit of the law entirely and were doing pretty much whatever they wanted with impunity.
That same environment of confusion and virtual lawlessness, rather than Schrems' goal of stopping or better protecting US transfers, will play out again if the Schrems II court invalidates SCCs. It'll happen a thousand-fold if the Schrems II court decides, sua sponte, to invalidate the Privacy Shield too
What can we do now to prepare?
For starters, keep reading this blog! In addition to that, remember our recurring mantra about applying the Pareto Principle to data security and privacy compliance.
Sure it's true that there are variations between laws and some laws have real quirks (CCPA anyone?!). But it's even more true that just about every data sec or privacy law (from HIPAA to the NY Cyber-reg to GDPR) has the following (or a very similar) set of building blocks at its foundation:
- adopt a risk-based technical and administrative data protection program,
- tell your employees and customers what you're doing with the data you collect about them and why,
- give your employees and customers some degree of access to and autonomy over that data,
- keep a close eye on third parties (including vendors) with whom you share that data, and
- respond swiftly to, and be honest with those affected by, unauthorized use if it occurs.
So put that foundation in place, and check on it periodically, and you'll be well on your way to achieving 80% compliance no matter what the Schrems II court decides.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.