In which I finally receive a reply to my complaint about ICO’s Facebook page.
The issue of the transfer of personal data to the US has been the subject of much debate and much litigation. In 2015 the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) struck down one of the then key legal mechanisms (“Safe Harbor”) for doing so. And in 2020 the CJEU did so with its successor, “Privacy Shield”. Both cases were initiated by complaints by lawyer and activist Max Schrems, and focused on the transfer of data from the EU to the US by Facebook.
Put simply, European data protection law, in the form of the GDPR and (as we must now talk about the UK in separate terms) UK data protection law, in the form of UKGDPR, outlaw the transfer of personal data to the US (or any other third country), unless the level of protection the data would receive in the EU, or the UK, is “not undermined” (see Chapter V of and recital 101 of GDPR/UKGDPR).
In “Schrems II” – the 2020 case – the CJEU not only struck down Privacy Shield – it effectively also laid down rules which needed to be followed if the alternative mechanisms, for instance using “standard contractual clauses” were to be used for transfers of personal data. Following the judgment, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) issued guidance in the form of FAQs, which recommended an “assessment, taking into account the circumstances of the transfers, and supplementary measures you could put in place”. The EDPB guidance was subsequently endorsed by the UK’s own Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)
The EDPB has recommended that you must conduct a risk assessment as to whether SCCs provide enough protection within the local legal framework, whether the transfer is to the US or elsewhere
What struck me as odd in all this is that the ICO themselves have a Facebook page. Given that Facebook’s own data governance arrangements involve the transfer of EU and UK users’ data to the US, and given that ICO don’t just operate their page as a newsletter, but actively encourage users to comment and interact on their page, it seemed to me that ICO were enabling the transfer of personal data by Facebook to the US. But even further than that, another CJEU judgment has previously made clear that operators of corporate Facebook pages may well function as a controller under the GDPR/UKGDPR, where they set parameters on the page. The Wirtschaftsakademie case held that – in the case of someone operating a “fan page”
While the mere fact of making use of a social network such as Facebook does not make a Facebook user a controller jointly responsible for the processing of personal data by that network, it must be stated, on the other hand, that the administrator of a fan page hosted on Facebook, by creating such a page, gives Facebook the opportunity to place cookies on the computer or other device of a person visiting its fan page, whether or not that person has a Facebook account.
By extension, it seemed to me, the ICO were in this position with their page.
So I put the point to them. After four months, and some chasing, I received a reply which not only confirmed my understanding that they are, and accept that they are, a controller, but that, nearly a year on from the Schrems II decision, they have not finished reviewing their position and have not updated their privacy notice to reflect their controller status in respect of their Facebook processing. (They also say that their legal basis for processing is “Article 6 (1) (e) of UK GDPR, public task” because “as a regulator we have a responsibility to promote good practice and engage with the public at large about data protection issues via commonly used platforms”, but I’d observe that they fail to give any attention to the proportionality test that reliance on this condition requires, and fail to point to the justification in domestic law, as required by Article 6.)
What the ICO response doesn’t do is actually respond to me as a data subject in respect of my complaint nor explain how they are complying with the international data transfer provisions of Chapter V of the GDPR/UKGDPR, and whether they have conducted any sort of transfer impact assessment (one presumes not).
As I said in my original complaint to ICO, I am aware that I might be seen as being mischievous, and I’m also aware I might be seen as having walked ICO into a trap. Maybe I am, and maybe I have, but there’s also a very serious point to be made. The cost to UK business of the Schrems II decision has been enormous, in terms of the legal advice sought, the internal governance reviews and risk assessments undertaken, and the negotiating or novation of contracts. At the same time the business and legal uncertainty is significant, with many wondering about their exposure to legal claims but also (and especially) to regulatory enforcement. If, though, the regulator is not complying with the relevant law, ten months on from the judgment (and five months on from my raising it with them as a concern) then what are controllers meant to do? And where do they turn to for guidance on the regulatory approach?
THE ICO RESPONSE
Firstly, it may be helpful to explain that following the findings of the CJEU in Wirtschaftsakademie, we started a review of the transparency information we provide to visitors of the page. The review was delayed when Schrems11 decision was issued as we needed to consider the impact of the judgement on any transfer element to the US.
We agree that as the Facebook page administrator, we are processing personal data of the visitors of our page and therefore we are controllers for this information. We process the names of the users as they appear on their Facebook profiles and any personal data they may share through their comments on our posts or via messages to us. We process this information in reliance on Article 6 (1) (e) of UK GDPR, public task. We consider that, as a regulator we have a responsibility to promote good practice and engage with the public at large about data protection issues via commonly used platforms.
For the cookies and similar technologies, Facebook is responsible for setting the cookies, when you visit our Facebook page.
We also receive anonymous information from Facebook in the form of aggregate statistics of all those who visit our page, regardless of whether they have a Facebook account or not. In line with the findings of the CJEU in Wirtschaftsakademie we are joint controllers with Facebook for this information. We process this information under Article 6 (1) (e) as well. The Insights include information on page viewings, likes, sharing of posts, age range, the device used and how it was accessed and breakdown of demographics. All Insights are received from Facebook by the ICO in aggregate format. Our PN will updated shortly to reflect the above information.
Like other regulators, the ICO is currently reviewing its position on international transfers following the judgment in Schrems II. As part of that review, it will, amongst other things, consider the questions that you have raised about the ICO’s use of Facebook. The ICO intends to publish its guidance on how UK organisations should address the question of international transfers, in due course, and will act in accordance with its guidance. That work is still in progress, and it will be published in due course.
The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.