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Are DPA notifications obsolete?

For almost 10 years I've been practising data protection law and advising multinational organizations on their strategic approach to global data processing operations. Usually, when it comes to

For almost 10 years I've been practising data protection law and advising multinational organizations on their strategic approach to global data processing operations. Usually, when it comes to complying with European data protection law, notifying the organization's data processing activities with the national data protection authorities (DPAs) is one of the most burdensome exercises. It may look simple, but companies often underestimate the work involved to do this.

As a reminder, article 18 of the Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC requires data controllers (or their representatives in Europe) to notify the DPA prior to carrying out their processing operations. In practise, this means that they must file a notification with the DPA in each Member State in which they are processing personal data, which specifies who is the data controller, the types of data that are collected, the purpose(s) for processing such data, whether any of that data gets transferred outside the EEA and how individuals can exercise their privacy rights.

In a perfect world, this would be a fairly straightforward process whereby organizations would simply file a single notification with the DPA in every Member State. But that would be too easy! The reality is that DPA notification procedures are not harmonized in Europe, which means that organizations must comply with the notification procedures of each Member State as defined by national law. As a result, each DPA has established its own notification rules which impose a pre-established notification form, procedure, and formalities on data controllers. Europe is not the only region to have notification rules. In Latin America, organizations must file a notification in Argentina, Uruguay in Peru. And several African countries (usually those who are members of the "Francophonie" such as Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, and the Ivory Coast) have also adopted data protection laws requiring data controllers to notify their data processing activities.

Failing to comply with this requirement puts your organization at risk with the DPAs who have the power in some countries to conduct audits and inspections of an organization's processing activities. If a company is found to be in violation of the law, some DPAs may impose sanctions (such as fines, public warnings) or order the data to be blocked or the data processing to cease immediately. Furthermore, companies may also be sanctioned by the national courts. For example, on October 8th, 2014, the labour chamber of the French Court of Cassation (the equivalent to the Supreme Court for civil and criminal matters) ruled that an employer could not use the data collected via the company's messaging system as evidence to lay-off one of its employees for excessively using that messaging service for private purposes (i.e., due to the high number of private emails transiting via the messaging service) because the company had failed to notify the French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) prior to monitoring the use of the messaging service.

One could also argue that notifications may get scrapped altogether by the draft Data Protection Regulation (currently being discussed by the European legislator) and so companies will no longer be required to notify their data processing activities to the regulator. True, but don't hold your breath for too long! The draft Regulation is currently stuck in the Council of ministers, and assuming it does get adopted by the European legislator, the most realistic date of adoption could be 2016. Given that the text has a two-year grace period before it comes into force, the Regulation would not come into force before 2018. And in its last meeting of October 3rd, 2014, the Council agreed to reach a partial general approach on the text of chapter IV of the draft Regulation on the understanding that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

So, are DPA notifications obsolete? The answer is clearly "no". If you're thinking: "why all the fuss? Do I really need to go through all this bureaucracy?" think again! The reason organizations must notify their data processing activities to the DPAs is simple: it's the law. Until the Data Protection Regulation comes into force (and even then, some processing activities may still require the DPA's prior approval), companies must continue to file their notifications. Doing so is a necessary component of any global privacy compliance project. It requires organizations to strategize their processing operations and to prioritize the jurisdictions in which they are developing their business. And failing to do so simply puts your organization at risk.

This article was first published in the IAPP's Privacy Tracker on October 23rd, 2014.

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