Skip to main content
Insight

Beware: Europe's take on the notification of personal data breaches to individuals

Nuria Pastor
10/04/2014
Article 29 Working Party ("WP 29") has recently issued an Opinion on Personal Data Breach Notification (the "Opinion"). The Opinion focuses on the interpretation of the criteria under which Article 29 Working Party ("WP 29") has recently issued an Opinion on Personal Data Breach Notification (the "Opinion"). The Opinion focuses on the interpretation of the criteria under which individuals should be notified about the breaches that affect their personal data.

Before we analyse the take aways from the Opinion, let's take a step back: are controllers actually required to notify personal data breaches?

In Europe, controllers have, for a while now, been either legally required or otherwise advised to consider notifying personal data breaches to data protection regulators and/or subscribers or individuals.

Today, the only EU-wide personal data breach notification requirement derives from Directive 2002/58/EC, as amended by Directive 2009/136/EC, (the "e-Privacy Directive") and  applies to providers of publicly available electronic communications services. In some EU member states (for example, in Germany), this requirement has been extended to controllers in other sectors or to all  controllers. Similarly, some data protection regulators have issued guidance whereby controllers are advised to report data breaches under certain circumstances.

Last summer, the European Commission adopted Regulation 611/2013 (the "Regulation"), (see our blog regarding the Regulation here), which  sets out the technical implementing measures concerning the circumstances, format and procedure for data breach notification required under Article 4 of the e-Privacy Directive.

In a nutshell, providers  must notify individuals of breaches that are likely to adversely affect their personal data or privacy without undue delay and taking account of: (i) the nature and content of the personal data concerned; (ii) the likely consequences of the personal data breach for the individual concerned (e.g. identify theft, fraud, distress, etc); and (iii) the circumstances of the personal data breach. Providers are exempt to notify individuals (not regulators) if they have demonstrated to the satisfaction of the data protection regulator that they have implemented appropriate technological protection measures to render that data unintelligible to any person who is not authorised to access it.

The Opinion provides guidance on how controllers may interpret this notification requirement by analysing 7 practical scenarios of breaches that will meet the 'adverse effect' test. For each of them, the  WP 29 identifies the potential consequences and adverse effects of the breach and the security safeguards which might have reduced the risk of the breach occurring in the first place or, indeed, might have exempted the controller from notifying the breach to individuals all together.

From the Opinion, it is worth highlighting:

The test. The 'adverse effect' test is interpreted broadly to include 'secondary effects'. The  WP 29 clearly states that all the potential consequences and potential adverse effects are to be taken into account. This interpretation may be seen a step too far as not all 'potential' consequences are 'likely' to happen and will probably lead to a conservative interpretation of the notification requirement across Europe.

Security is key. Controllers should put in place security measures that are appropriate to the risk presented by the processing with emphasis on the implementation of those controls rendering data unintelligible. Compliance with data security requirements should result in the mitigation of the risks of personal data breaches and even, potentially, in the application of the exception to notify individuals about the breach. Examples of security measures that are identified to be likely to reduce the risk of a breach occurring are: encryption (with strong key); hashing (with strong key), back-ups, physical and logical access controls and regular monitoring of vulnerabilities.

Procedure. Controllers should have procedures in place to manage personal data breaches. This will involve a detailed analysis of the breach and its potential consequences. In the Opinion, the  data breaches fall under three categories, namely, availability, integrity or confidentiality breaches. The application of this model may help controllers analyse the breach too.

How many individuals? The number of individuals affected by the breach should not have a bearing on the decision of whether or not to notify them.

Who must notify? It is explicitly stated in the Opinion that breach notification constitutes good practice for all controllers, even for those who are currently not required to notify by law.

There is a growing consensus in Europe that it is only a matter of time before an EU-wide personal data breach notification requirement that applies to all controllers (regardless of the sector they are in) is in place. Indeed, this will be the case if/when the proposed General Data Protection Regulation is approved. Under it, controllers would be subject to strict notification requirements both to data protection regulators and individuals. This Opinion provides some insight into  how the  European regulators may interpret these requirements under the General Data Protection Regulation.

Therefore, controllers will be well-advised to prepare for what is coming their way (see previous blog here). Focus should be on the application of security measures (in order to prevent a breach and the adverse effects to individuals once a breach has occurred) and on putting procedures in place to effectively manage breaches. Start today, burying the head in the sand is just no longer an option.

Sign up to our email digest

Click to subscribe or manage your email preferences.

SUBSCRIBE