Last week, the EU issued the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a long-awaited comprehensive privacy regulation that will govern all 28 EU member countries. Clocking in at more than 200 pages, this is quite a document to digest. According to the European Commission press release: “The regulation will establish one single set of rules which will make it simpler and cheaper for companies to do business in the EU.”
The GDPR has been many years in the making, and it will have an enormous impact on the transfer of data between the US and EU, especially in light of the invalidation of the Safe Harbor Arrangement earlier this year. It will has substantial implications for any global company doing business in the EU. The GDPR is anticipated to go into effect in 2017.
Here are some of the implications I see emerging from the GDPR as well as some questions for the future:
1. Penalties and Enforcement
Under Article 79, violations of certain provisions will carry a penalty of “up to 2% of total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year.” Violations of other provisions will carry a penalty of “up to 4% of total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year.” The 4% penalty applies to “basic principles for processing, including conditionals for consent,” as well as “data subjects’ rights” and “transfers of personal data to a recipient in a third country or an international organisation.”
These are huge penalties. Such penalties will definitely be a wake-up call for top management at companies to pay more attention to privacy and to provide more resources to the Chief Privacy Officer (CPO). Now we can finally imagine the CEO at a meeting, with her secretary rushing over to her and whispering in her ear that the CPO is calling. The CEO will stand up immediately and say: “Excuse me, but I must take this call. It’s my CPO calling!”
To date, EU enforcement of its privacy laws has been spotty and anemic, so much so that many characterize it as barely existent. Will the new GDPR change enforcement? With such huge fines, the payoff for enforcement will be enormous. We could see a new enforcement culture emerge, with more robust and consistent enforcement. If privacy isn’t much of a priority of upper management at some global companies, it will be soon.
Recently, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publicized its resolution agreement in its HIPAA enforcement action against St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center (SEMC). SEMC agreed to pay $218,000.
The case began with a complaint filed with OCR back in 2012 that employees were sharing PHI of nearly 500 patients via an online sharing application without a risk analysis on such activities being undertaken. OCR investigation found that the medical center “failed to timely identify and respond to the known security incident, mitigate the harmful effects of the security incident and document the security incident and its outcome.”
If the data is in the hands of traditional cyber criminals, the 18-month window of protection may not be enough to protect workers from harm down the line. “The data is sold off, and it could be a while before it’s used,” said Michael Sussmann, a partner in the privacy and data security practice at law firm Perkins Coie. “There’s often a very big delay before having a loss.”
Law firms are facing grave privacy and security risks. Although a number of firms are taking steps to address these risks, the industry as a whole needs to grasp the severity of the risk. For firms, privacy and security risks can be significantly higher than for other organizations. Incidents can be catastrophic. On a scale of 1 to 10, the risks law firms are facing are an 11.
This is not time for firms to keep calm and carry on. The proper response is to freak out.