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Agreement Reached on New EU-U.S. Safe Harbor: the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield

On February 2nd, 2016, the European Commission and U.S. Government reached political agreement on the new framework for transatlantic data flows.  The new framework – the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield – succeeds the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor framework (for more on the Court of Justice of the European Union decision in the Schrems case declaring the Safe Harbor invalid, see our earlier post here).  The EU’s College of Commissioners has also mandated Vice-President Ansip and Commissioner Jourová to prepare the necessary steps to put in place the new arrangement.

The EU-U.S. Privacy Shield

According to the Commission press release, there will be several new elements to the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, as compared with the invalidated EU-U.S. Safe Harbor framework.  For instance, in addition to subjecting participating U.S. companies to certain as-yet unspecified safeguards, the Privacy Shield will include:

  • An annual joint review of the program performed by the European Commission and U.S. Department of Commerce – to which European data protection authorities will be invited – to ensure its proper functioning.  This will include a review of access by U.S. intelligence agencies to EU-originating data.

  • Enhanced rights of redress for European data subjects, including (i) subjecting U.S. organizations to firmer deadlines when responding to complaints, (ii) allowing EU citizens and EU data protection authorities to refer complaints to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, (iii) establishing, as a last resort, a new binding alternative dispute resolution mechanism to resolve complaints that will be voluntary and free to data subjects, capable of issuing binding injunctive orders, and subject to judicial review consistent with the U.S. Federal Arbitration Act, and (iv) creating a new “Ombudsperson” within the U.S. State Department to handle complaints – channeled through EU Member State representatives – that relate to U.S. intelligence agencies’ access to data.  Disputes relating to human resources/employee data will remain subject to an alternative process that entails somewhat closer involvement of EU data protection authorities, similar to the current Safe Harbor.

Moreover, it is reported that the U.S. Director of National Intelligence will confirm by official letter to the EU that U.S. intelligence agencies do not engage in “indiscriminate mass surveillance” of data transferred under the new arrangement.

The Privacy Shield is expected to retain or enhance many of the elements contained in the original Safe Harbor framework, including substantive commitments made by U.S. companies on such matters as furnishing appropriate notices to EU citizens, maintaining the security of transferred data, and tightened restrictions on onward transfers.  The precise nature of these obligations is not yet known, but will become clearer in the weeks ahead.

Next steps

The EU College of Commissioner’s has mandated Vice-President Ansip and Commissioner Jourová to, over the coming weeks, prepare a draft Decision declaring the U.S. to ensure an adequate level of protection.  The adoption of such a Decision by the Commission must follow a “comitology” procedure which will involve:

  • a proposal from the Commission;

  • an opinion by EU Member States’ data protection authorities and the European Data Protection Supervisor (“EDPS”), in the framework of the Article 29 Working Party;

  • an approval from the “Article 31 Committee”, composed of representatives of Member States, under the comitology “examination procedure”;

  • the formal adoption of the Decision by the College of Commissioners;

  • at any time, the European Parliament and the Council may request the Commission to maintain, amend or withdraw the adequacy decision on the grounds that its act exceeds the implementing powers provided for in the Directive.

The effect of such a Commission Adequacy Decision is that personal data can flow from the 28 EU countries and three EEA member countries (Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) to the U.S. without any further safeguards being necessary.

Commissioner Jourová hopes for the new arrangement to be in force in approximately 3 months’ time.  The U.S. Government, in the meantime, will make the necessary preparations to put in place the new framework, monitoring mechanisms, and new Ombudsperson.

Tomorrow (February 3rd, 2016), Commissioner Jourová will attend the plenary meeting of the Article 29 Working Party to discuss the role of the EU data protection authorities under the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield.  The U.S. Department of Commerce is, in parallel, planning further briefings about the text.

Joseph Jones is co-author of this article. 

© 2023 Covington & Burling LLPNational Law Review, Volume VI, Number 34

About this Author

Daniel Cooper, Data privacy lawyer, Covington Burling

Daniel Cooper advises clients on information technology regulatory issues, particularly data protection, e-commerce and data security matters.

According to the latest edition of Chambers UK (2018), his "level of expertise is second to none, but it's also equally paired with a keen understanding of our business and direction." In 2017, it was noted that "he is very good at calibrating and helping to gauge risk."

Philippe Bradley-Schmieg, Covington Burling, Data privacy and cybersecurity attorney

Philippe Bradley-Schmieg's practice covers a range of regulatory and commercial matters affecting the IT, internet media, e-health and telecoms sectors across the world.

Mr. Bradley-Schmieg advises on legislation, enforcement, advocacy and contracts relating to privacy, data protection, consumer protection, intermediary liability, copyright and databases, Big Data, medical confidentiality, cybersecurity, law enforcement data requests, and smart medical devices and apps.