What’s happening with SCCs? – Part 3 (UK SCCs)

Part 1 and Part 2 of the What’s been happening with SCCs? updates have tracked the EU’s and the UK’s progress in developing standard contractual clauses (SCCs) to deal with the transfer of personal data to third countries, i.e. countries that are not considered to have an ‘adequate’ level of data protection, as well as the publication of the new EU SCCs.  This update focuses on the UK SCCs.

On 11th August 2021 the ICO launched a  consultation on ‘how organisations can continue to protect people’s personal data when it’s transferred outside of the UK‘.  As part of the consultation the ICO published its proposal for UK standard contractual clauses in the form of a brand new international data transfer agreement (IDTA), as well as its new Transfer Risk Assessment (TRA) and tool.  The ICO is also requesting comments on an update of its existing guidance on international transfers.  The consultation closes on 7th October 2021.

All very interesting I’m sure.  But is any of this relevant to me?

Short version is that if you’re transferring UK citizens’ personal data to a ‘third country’ (i.e. a country which is not considered by the UK to have ‘adequate’ data protection laws (full list here), then yes. You will need to use one of the transfer mechanisms (or ‘appropriate safeguards‘) set out in Article 46 of the GDPR (now incorporated into UK law as the UK GDPR, as amended).  And although the UK GDPR provides for a variety of transfer mechanisms, for most businesses the only practical option in these circumstances will be for both the (UK) data exporter and (third country) data importer to enter into an IDTA, having first completed a Transfer Risk Assessment (TRA).

Bear in mind that for these purposes:

  • ‘Transferring’ data includes making data stored in the UK available to be accessed by a data importer in a third country, even on a ‘view-only’ basis.
  • Whether the data importer ever does access or otherwise process the data that you transfer is irrelevant.
  • Following the invalidation of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield by the ECJ in its ‘Schrems II’  judgment, the U.S. is now a third country.

Ah, ok.  So what do I need to know?

The new IDTA and TRA requirements will not not become law until the end of 2021 or, more likely, spring 2022.  Between now and then the situation is a bit of a mess.  UK law provides that the old EU SCCs must continue to be used as the Article 46 transfer mechanism, even after 27 September 2021 when they cease to be lawful for new EU cross-border data transfers.  Although some commentators have suggested that, in a post-Schrems II world, a better approach is for UK data exporters to use the new EU SCCs until the new IDTA is adopted, my view is that for the time being most UK data exporters should stay compliant with UK law and either make Brexit-required changes to their existing SCCs or, for new transfers, put in place a data transfer agreement based on the old EU SCCs.

The timelines for UK data exporters being legally required to use the new IDTA for international data transfers will be 3 months for new transfers and 21 months for existing transfers, each period running 40 days from the date on which the IDTA is laid before Parliament as a regulation.

Some high-level comments on the IDTA:

  1. In contrast to the modular new EU SCCs (which will need quite a bit of copying and pasting), the IDTA is a single agreement, made up of four parts:
    • Part 1 (Parties and signature) sets out a series of tables which capture the variables, including the status of the parties (i.e. controller, processor etc), details of the proposed data transfers, details of the data to be transferred, purposes of the transfers, and the security requirements.  If the IDTA forms part of an MSA or other commercial agreement between the exporter and importer, the MSA can be recorded as a ‘Linked Agreement’.
    • Part 2 (Extra Protection Clauses) is optional, but enables the parties to include any additional security, organisational and/or contractual protections that are considered necessary following the TRA.
    • Part 3 (Commercial Clauses) is also optional, enabling the parties to include any commercial terms that they have agreed.
    • Part 4 (Mandatory Clauses) constitutes the bulk of the IDTA, and sets out the parties’ rights and obligations in relation the data transfers.
  2. The ICO have done their best to use plain English and avoid legal terminology, and generally to keep the IDTA as user-friendly as possible.  But the IDTA template (excluding guidance notes and Q&A) runs to 43 pages, and putting one in place will require a fair bit of work.
  3. For organisations putting in place new EU SCCs for EEA-to-third country data transfers,  the ICO has helpfully produced a short addendum which, once completed and signed, will enable the EU SCCs to be used also for transfers from the UK.
  4. In contrast to the new EU SCCs, which need to be reviewed ‘at appropriate intervals’ the IDTA (and associated TRA) should be reviewed annually, which is perhaps overly onerous for low-risk transfers.
  5. A more detailed analysis of the Mandatory Clauses of the IDTA to follow once the ICO consultation is completed.

And some comments on the TRA:

  1. The TRA precedent is intended to be use for medium and low risk transfers.  High risk transfers, such as transfers to countries with poor human rights records, are likely to require more sophisticated transfer risk assessments.  The TRA is not mandatory – data exporters are free to use what form of risk assessment they consider appropriate.
  2. As with the IDTA, the ICO have done their best to make the TRA accessible and user friendly.  It contains numerous, ‘real life’ practical examples showing when transfers may be permitted.  It also explains what constitutes high, medium and low risk in the context of international transfers, and (helpfully) confirms that where the risk of harm that the transfer causes to data subjects is minimal then the transfer is permitted by default.
  3. But the TRA is 49 pages long, and will constitute a significant undertaking for all but the most well-resourced data exporters.  And although the ICO recognises the challenge that data exporters face in obtaining information about the legal framework of the data importer’s country, suggesting that information may be available via ‘reports issued by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office and charitable organisations‘, the ICO does not address the obvious question why this information cannot be provided by the ICO (and/or appropriate government department), instead suggesting that data exporter may need to obtain ‘expert advice‘.
  4. On a positive note, and unlike the new EU SCCs, the objective of the TRA is not necessarily to ensure that the legal framework of the data importer’s country is ‘essentially equivalent’, but whether it provides ‘very similar protections’ to those in the UK.  The TRA also makes the point that countries which have surveillance regimes may in fact be more legitimate than countries whose lack of surveillance laws may suggest a lack of safeguards.
  5. The findings from the TRA must be documented to ensure there a record of the assessment. If a data exporter uses its best efforts to complete the TRA, the ICO will take this into account in any regulatory action resulting from a later GDPR breach.

Hmm… 49-page risk assessments and 43-page data transfer agreements.  Doesn’t exactly sound ‘agile’?

You’re referring to the comments of the UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, who suggested in his article in the FT last February that that the UK can now be more ‘agile’ when it comes to ‘[striking] our own international data partnerships with some of the world’s fastest growing economies’.

If we accept the importance of ensuring a meaningful level of protection for UK citizens’ data when shared with third parties outside the UK then we either have to provide a mechanism which gives organisations the ability to put in place a framework to ensure a meaningful level of protection, or we go down the data localisation route and make it unlawful for personal data to be transferred from the UK to any ‘third country’.

Despite the reservations mentioned above, the ICO have in my view done a good job striking a balance between the need for ‘agility’, and the need to provide meaningful protection of personal data in a world which, for the most part, falls far behind the ‘gold standard’ of EU and now UK data protection.  But the elephant in the room remains why the ICO (or appropriate government department) cannot provide UK data exporters carrying out a TRA with guidelines regarding each third country’s legal framework, third-party surveillance rights and safeguards, and their similarity to those in the UK.  It will be interesting to see if this is addressed by the consultation.




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