Blogs | Privacy and data protection | Data protection standards

Are GDPR certification schemes the next data transfer disaster?

By FIPR (guest author) · May 2, 2018

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) encourages the establishment of data protection certification mechanisms, “in particular at [EU] level” (Art. 42(1)). But the GDPR also envisages various types of national schemes, and allows for the approval (“accreditation”) of schemes that are only very indirectly linked to the national data protection authority.

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On 6 February 2018, the Article 29 Working Party (WP29) adopted Draft Guidelines on the accreditation of certification bodies under Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (WP261). On 16 February, it issued a call asking for comments on these draft guidelines. Why can this seemingly technical issue have major implications, in particular in relation to transfers of personal data to third countries without “adequate” data protection (such as the USA)?

The GDPR stipulates that, in relation to several requirements (consent, data subject rights, etc.), a data protection seal (issued at national or EU level) can be used as “an element by which to demonstrate” the relevant matters. This makes such seals useful and valuable, but still allows the data protection authorities to assess whether a product or service for which a seal has been issued really does conform to the GDPR.

However, in one context this is different: in relation to transfers of personal data to third countries without adequate data protection. Such transfers are in principle prohibited, subject to a limited number of exceptions, including where “appropriate safeguards” are provided by the controller or processor (Art. 46). In this regard, the GDPR stipulates that such appropriate safeguards “may be provided for” inter alia by:
an approved certification mechanism pursuant to Article 42 together with binding and enforceable commitments of the controller or processor in the third country to apply the appropriate safeguards, including as regards data subjects’ rights (Art. 46(2)(f)).

In other words, in relation to transfers of personal data to countries without adequate data protection, certifications are conclusive: they provide, in and by themselves, the required safeguards. Indeed, the article adds that certifications can achieve this “without requiring any specific authorisation from a supervisory authority” (leading sentence to Article 46(2)).

In the highly sensitive context of data transfers, it is therefore crucial that certification schemes will ensure that certifications can and will only be issued in cases in which they really provide cast-iron safeguards, “essentially equivalent” to those provided within the European Union and the European Economic Area (EEA) by the GDPR. Otherwise, the very same problems and challenges will arise as arose in relation to the discredited “Safe Harbor” scheme and the not-much-less contestable (and currently contested) “Privacy Shield”.

Unfortunately, the GDPR does not directly guarantee that certification schemes must be demanding and set high standards. Rather, member states can choose from three types of arrangement: the relevant national data protection authority (DPA) issuing seals; the national DPA accrediting other bodies to issue seals; or leaving it to national accreditation bodies to accredit other bodies to issue seals. In the last case, the seal-issuing bodies are therefore two arms-lengths removed from the DPAs. Moreover, national accreditation bodies normally accredit technical standards bodies, for example, for medical devices or toys – they are unsuited to approve mechanisms supposed to uphold fundamental rights. This could lead to low-standard seal schemes, in particular in countries that have always been lax in terms of data protection rules and enforcement, such as the UK and Ireland.

The only safeguard against the creation of weak certification schemes lies in the criteria for accreditation of certification schemes, applied by the relevant accrediting body (which as just mentioned need not be the country’s DPA): those criteria must be approved by the relevant national DPA, subject to the consistency mechanism of the GDPR (which means that ultimately the new European Data Protection Board, created by the GDPR as the successor to the Article 29 Working Party) will have the final say on those criteria. But this is still rather far removed from the actual awarding of certifications.

Surprisingly, the Draft Guidelines on the accreditation of certification bodies, released by the WP29, do not include the very annex that is to contain the accreditation criteria.

To the extent that the WP29 say anything about them, they play them down: the WP29 says that the as-yet-unpublished guidelines in the not-yet-available annex will “not constitute a procedural manual for the accreditation process performed by the national accreditation body or the supervisory authority”, but rather will only “provide […] guidance on structure and methodology and thus a toolbox to the supervisory authorities to identify the additional requirements for accreditation” (p. 12).

As pointed out in a letter to the WP29, “the WP29 Draft Guidelines therefore fail to address the most important issues concerning certification”. The letter calls on the WP29 to:

urgently provide an opinion on the ways in which it can be assured that certification schemes will really only lead to certifications at the highest level, and in particular to ensure that certifications will not be used to undermine the strict regime for transfers of personal data from the EU/EEA to third countries that do not provide “adequate” (that is: “essentially equivalent”) data protection to that provided by the GDPR –

[and to]

urgently move towards the accreditation of (a) pan-EU/EEA certification scheme(s) at the highest level, and adopt a policy that would require controllers and processors involved in cross-border processing operations within the EU/EEA and/or data transfers to third countries without adequate data protection to seek such pan-EU/EEA certifications for such cross-border operations, rather than certifications issued by national schemes.

Draft Guidelines on the accreditation of certification bodies under Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (WP261)

Letter to the Article 29 Working Party

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

(Contribution by Douwe Korff, EDRi member Foundation for Information Policy Research – FIPR, United Kingdom)