As we look back on the month of February, social media became saturated with data in the shape of heavily edited photographs, mushy status updates and hashtags (#boydonegood, anyone?). All of this was traceable to the misty-eyed couples that singletons love to hate, but now that the romance of Valentine’s Day has died down all eyes in the tech industry are on one relationship in particular.
The EU/US data sharing relationship has been strained since October, when Safe Harbour, the previously incumbent data protection arrangement of fifteen years, was deemed invalid. Following a two-day meeting by EU watchdogs in Brussels, both parties recently announced a separation from Safe Harbour and renewed their vows in the EU-US Privacy Shield, a new pact designed to ease anxieties surrounding data transfer to America from Europe.
The terms of the new agreement are as follows:
- Registration of EU complaints about US authorities spying on data in the form of an ombudsman.
- A written commitment from the US Office of Director of National Intelligence that EU data won’t be subject to mass surveillance.
- An annual review by both parties to assess the new system’s success.
- EU watchdogs to work with their US equivalent, the Federal Trade Commission, to deal with any issues.
- Companies to be subject to expulsion from the Shield if they fail to comply with privacy regulations.
With over 4,000 firms previously reliant on Safe Harbour, the news has been welcomed by relieved businesses as a reprieve from the fear of economic disruption that tech companies could have suffered had data transfer been sanctioned or restricted. Several industries are looking forward to closing the ‘on a break’ phase of this ongoing affair, with Dave Grimaldi, executive vice-president of public policy for the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), offering an optimistic view: ‘’With nearly $100bn in advertising revenue between the two continents, this decision will hopefully bring much-needed legal certainty to the digital advertising industry.”
Before setting off into the sunset on honeymoon, however, the US and EU should consider the genuine possibility of a divorce settlement, as Max Schrems, the privacy campaigner who was instrumental in Safe Harbour’s demise, has condemned the Privacy Shield to a similar fate, commenting that: ‘’The ECJ will kill it in no time.’’ With the pact currently resembling a political agreement as opposed to a concrete piece of legislation, there is concern that the new arrangements will not protect EU data from ‘’explicit US law allowing mass surveillance.’’
Adding a further point to this love triangle, Phil Lee of law firm Fieldfisher criticised the Privacy Shield announcement, commenting that ‘’only the foolhardy would want to place their trust in a new Safe Harbour right now,’’ and ‘’whether legal or not, its reputation is already shot to pieces.’’
Although it seems unfair to compare the Shield to a hasty Vegas wedding ceremony, the EU and US may not escape the subsequent hangover in the coming weeks as the new agreement comes under fire from privacy groups and sceptical commentators. It remains to be seen whether the cracks have simply been papered over, or whether a permanent solution has been found. Either way, the issue of data protection looks set to be a hot topic in 2016.