Briefing

The route to the United Kingdom (UK) gaining data protection adequacy has been set out by the European Commission. UK adequacy is a declaration by the EU that the UK’s laws and systems are essentially equivalent to cover the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Law Enforcement Directive’s (LED) data flows. The UK uniquely benefits from many years of alignment with European data protection standards including ratifying the Council of Europe’s Convention 108. The UK’s pioneering first law was the UK Data Protection Act 1984. The UK then adopted both the EU Data Protection Directive 1995 and the GDPR of 2016.

Data protection adequacy creates certainty and trust for data flows to and from the EU and UK. There are numerous benefits to data protection adequacy for business, trade, cooperation, security and law enforcement. However, because the UK has left the EU (Brexit), it now stands apart from EU developments and automatic institutional advancements. Inevitably, over time, there will be degrees of divergence, duplication of compliance activities and an evolving dynamic tension between the EU and UK regimes. Despite this, there will be an enduring, broad and deep commonality between the EU and UK data protection regimes, well into the future.

The Benefits: What UK Data Protection Adequacy Means

UK data protection adequacy creates a new status quo:

  • The UK will join Andorra, Argentina, Canada (commercial organisations), Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Israel, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, New Zealand and Uruguay as a country with essentially equivalent data protection standards to the EU, the European Economic Area (EEA) countries and Switzerland.
  • The EU will allow the free flow of personal data from the EU to the UK and these will not be considered international data transfers and require the complex additional safeguards listed in the GDPR. The UK has already declared adequate the EU, the EEA, Switzerland and the current list of EU-adequate countries, which creates fully reciprocal personal data flows between the UK and EU.
  • Going forward, the UK will be obliged to ensure that domestic developments in data protection law and systems substantially reflect developments in the EU. This will create a degree of certainty and transparency for companies, organisations and governments.
  • In the future, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s GDPR regulator, will be more inclined to interpret and enforce the GDPR in line with EU developments. Though, the ICO must also reflect UK-led changes to the legal framework, UK GDPR interpretation and UK court decisions.
  • Companies and organisations that operate both in the UK and EU must now establish two distinct personal data breach reporting arrangements. UK personal data breaches will need to be reported in the UK, to the ICO. EU data breaches must be reported to one or more of the EU’s twenty-seven GDPR regulators. Bureaucratically, personal data breaches affecting individuals based in the UK and EU must be reported in both regions.
  • International companies and organisation can continue to blend their data protection programmes to cover all EU countries and the UK but specifically allow for future UK variations. This approach will encourage economies of scale, compliance costs savings, interoperability and more transparent European-wide data risk profiles. 

Dynamic Controls

UK data protection adequacy includes several dynamic controls that supervise the EU/UK data relationship into the future. Companies and organisations should note that:

  • UK adequacy decisions are subject to review by the European Commission at four-year intervals. The decisions are re-examined periodically.
  • The validity of the UK’s adequacy decisions could be challenged in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). This court has the power to invalidate the adequacy decisions, forcing organisations to stop transferring personal data from the EU to the UK. This happened to the EU-US-Swiss Safe Harbour adequacy decision in 2015 and EU-US-Swiss Privacy Shield adequacy decision in 2020, causing much disruption, uncertainty and costs to businesses and organisations.
  • The European Commission can suspend UK adequacy decisions based on a serious violation or series of serious violations that offend the EU’s  rights-based system. This is unlikely. However, a significant UK/EU disagreement about human rights, EU fundamental rights, national security and large-scale surveillance could increase the risk. A significant breakdown in the UK’s internal checks and balances that safeguard the right to personal data protection could negatively affect the stability of UK adequacy.

The Limits: What UK Data Protection Adequacy does not Mean

UK data protection adequacy does not alter several important issues and so companies and organisations should note that:

  • UK adequacy creates and maintains equivalence for data transfers from the EU to the UK. However, the UK will still need to create new international data transfer mechanisms for UK personal data flows to the rest of the world. These may be different from the EU’s system and may include UK-specific data protection standard contractual clauses. Companies and organisations in the UK and EU must now navigate two systems for international transfers.
  • Companies and organisations that have no presence in the EU but offer goods or services or monitor individuals in the EU will need to appoint an EU Data Protection Representative based in the EU, separate from the any UK representative.
  • Companies and organisations that have no presence in the UK but offer goods or services or monitor individuals in the UK will need to appoint a UK Data Protection Representative based in the UK, separate from any EU representative.
  • Post Brexit, the UK is still part of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with its well-established right to privacy, family life, home and correspondence. This right is reflected in the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998.  However, there is no longer a fundamental right to personal data protection in UK law as it exists in EU law. The UK is no longer a party to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and its specific additional Article 8 personal data protections. As a result, data protection rights in the UK are now narrower in scope than in the EU. 
  • The UK continues to have GDPR embedded into its laws. However, automatic data protection alignment is no longer legally and practically inevitable. Brexit means that the UK is no longer a part of the EU’s governing treaties, democratic institutions, internal single market, digital single market, regulators and courts. Data protection decisions and opinions from the European Commission, European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) no longer have automatic legal force on the UK.

For assistance with GDPR, EU/UK data flows and Brexit, contact PrivacySolved:

London +44 207 175 9771

Dublin +353 1 960 9370

Email: contact@privacysolved.com

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