A look at the UK's data protection law in a no-deal Brexit situation | Fieldfisher
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A look at the UK's data protection law in a no-deal Brexit situation


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Amidst the Christmas festivities, the draft Data Protection, Privacy and Electronic Communications (Amendments etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 were laid before Parliament. The Exit Regulations show what the UK's data protection legal landscape will look like if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. This blog outlines the potential changes and considers what impact the Exit Regulations will have.

We previously reported on Brexit's impact on data protection here and here.

Shortly before Christmas, the draft Data Protection, Privacy and Electronic Communications (Amendments etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 ("Exit Regulations", available here) were laid before Parliament. In this blog, we outline the changes under the Exit Regulations and consider what impact they will have if Brexit leaves the UK in a no-deal scenario. 

Preparing for a no-deal Brexit

As a brief reminder of the current legislative landscape in the UK, so long as the UK is in the EU the GDPR has direct effect. The Data Protection Act 2018 ("DPA") must be read alongside the GDPR and has multiple functions. Firstly, it supplements the GDPR and contains derogations that are permitted by the GDPR (such as providing for additional conditions around the processing of special categories of personal data and exemptions in respect of data subject rights). The DPA also applies a broadly equivalent regime to certain data processing activities which fall outside the scope of the GDPR. These relate to, for example, the processing of personal data for immigration purposes and manual unstructured data held by a public authority covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Finally, the DPA covers processing by law enforcement bodies and UK intelligence services.

In the event that the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement, the GDPR will form part of UK domestic law as 'retained EU law' ("UK GDPR") by virtue of section 3 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 ("EUWA"). However, in its current form the UK GDPR will not function effectively on the day that the UK leaves the EU ("exit day", currently scheduled for 29 March 2019) due to the numerous references to EU laws and institutions and the fact that the UK will cease to be a Member State of the EU. The Exit Regulations, made under powers conferred in the EUWA, will be required to ensure that the UK's legal framework for data protection continues to function. 

If there is a withdrawal agreement, then the Exit Regulations will not come into force and the UK will instead enter the "transition period" where EU law will continue to apply as if the UK were still an EU Member State (subject to certain exceptions).

  1. Territorial scope and UK representative

By virtue of the Exit Regulations, the UK GDPR will apply to any controllers and processors based in the UK as well as those outside the UK but which offer goods and services in the UK or monitor the behaviour of UK individuals. The UK GDPR will therefore continue to have extra-territorial effect in the same way as the GDPR currently does.

Many controllers and processors, whether based outside of the EEA or in one of the remaining EEA countries, will have already considered whether they are subject to UK data protection law. However, they will now also need to consider the requirement to appoint a representative in the UK. This will impact both non-EEA controllers and processors who may have already appointed a representative in a non-UK Member State as well as EEA controllers and processors who don't have a UK presence (and for whom this will represent an entirely new obligation).

Equally, the ICO has also indicated that a UK-based controller or processor that does not have any offices or establishments in the EEA but offers goods or services to or monitors the behaviour of EEA individuals will need to consider appointing a European representative.

  1. The merger of the GDPR and "applied GDPR"

As previously mentioned, the DPA currently provides for two separate regimes for general processing: one for processing that falls within the scope of the GDPR and a separate, broadly equivalent regime for processing that falls outside the scope of the GDPR (the so-called "applied GDPR"). Given that EU law will not apply in the UK after Brexit, there will no longer be a need to distinguish between processing within the competence of EU law and that which is governed solely by UK law. The Exit Regulations will therefore merge these two regimes on exit day to create a single, unified regime for all general processing activities.

However, it is worth mentioning that this will not be a complete merger. Under s6 of the EUWA, any question around the interpretation of retained EU law (including the GDPR) must be decided in accordance with EU case law and general principles of EU law as they apply immediately before the UK leaves the EU. However, the Exit Regulations indicate that may not be the case for processing under the applied GDPR, which governs the processing of personal data in areas where the EU has no competence.

  1. Data transfers outside the UK

Currently, any transfer of personal data from the UK to a country outside the EEA may only be made if that country has been granted adequacy status by the EU Commission or by using one of the "appropriate safeguards" described under Article 46 of the GDPR (i.e., the EU Commission's standard contractual clauses or approved BCR).

The Exit Regulations maintain the same restrictions for data transfers outside the UK (whether to a non-EEA country or a remaining member of the EEA) but ensure that data flows are not disrupted on exit day. They specify that certain countries and bodies are considered to have adequate status: these include all of the remaining EEA countries as well as Gibraltar, non-EEA countries which have already been granted adequacy status by the EU Commission or granted adequacy status prior to exit day, and the EU institutions and bodies. The Exit Regulations also provide that the EU's authorised standard contractual clause and approved BCR may continue as potential mechanisms for transfers outside the UK, whether in their original form or as modified for a UK-specific context. Finally, the existing derogations under Article 49 of the GDPR will continue to be available.  

Once the UK has left the EU, the Secretary of State will have sole authority to grant adequacy status (by way of regulations) in respect of transfers outside the UK and will be required to publish a list of those countries and territories it has deemed adequate. The ICO will continue to authorise BCR and will also be able to issue new UK-only standard clauses.

  1. Co-operation and consistency

From exit day, the ICO will no longer be able to take part in the existing co-operation mechanism between EU supervisory authorities. Equally, the European Commission and European Data Protection Board will not have competence over the regulation of personal data in the UK. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Chapter VII - which lays the foundations of the co-operation and consistency mechanism - will be redundant and is removed entirely from the UK GDPR. Article 50, which addresses broader aims of international co-operation and mutual assistance in the area of data protection, will be retained.

Another expected amendment is the removal of provisions addressing the co-operation of Member State courts. Currently, under Article 81 of the GDPR, where proceedings are issued in a UK court against the same controller or processor and in relation to the same subject matter as a case already pending in another EU Member State, the UK court may either decline jurisdiction or suspend those proceedings until the other court has made its determination. Arguably, the removal of these provisions increases the possibility of concurrent claims in the UK and the EU.
  1. ICO fines

The Exit Regulations confirm that the ICO will continue be able to issue the same level of fines as provided under the GDPR. In particular, they state that from exit day the ICO will be able to administer fines of up of £8.7m or 2% of the total worldwide annual turnover (whichever is higher) for less serious breaches and £17.5m or 4% (whichever is higher) for more serious breaches.

  1. Amendments to the PECR

Finally, the Exit Regulations also contain a small but significant addition to the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 ("PECR"). They insert a new definition of "consent" with reference to the UK GDPR, ensuring that the standard of consent under UK ePrivacy rules will be consistent with the data protection regime.

So what do the Exit Regulations mean for controllers and processors?

To the extent possible, the Exit Regulations will maintain the status quo for data protection in the event the UK leaves the EU without a deal in place. The GDPR will be incorporated into UK law, maintaining equivalent data protection standards, and cross-border transfers of data outside the UK will be unaffected.

However, controllers and processors will need to consider appointing a UK or, in some cases, a European representative. In addition, it is worth remembering that the Exit Regulations will not govern transfers into the UK from the EEA. In a no-deal scenario, the UK will become a third country and any transfers of data from the EU to the UK will be subject to the transfer restrictions under the GDPR. Given the extremely low probability that the UK will be granted adequacy status before exit day, EU-based controllers and processors will need to ensure appropriate transfer mechanisms are in place for any EU-UK transfers. The European Data Protection Board is still finalising guidance on this issue but the ICO has stated that in most cases this will involve putting standard contractual clauses in place or relying on one of the data export derogations.

From a broader perspective, the creation of a new data protection regime in the UK may present additional complexities for controllers and processors who are caught by both European and UK law and will therefore need to comply with both the GDPR and (in relation to UK customer data) something that looks like the GDPR but which may start to move away from it as time goes on.

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