Stop using Zoom, Hamburg's DPA warns state government

·4 min read

Hamburg's state government has been formally warned against using Zoom over data protection concerns.

The German state's data protection agency (DPA) took the step of issuing a public warning yesterday, writing in a press release that the Senate Chancellory's use of the popular videoconferencing tool violates the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) since user data is transferred to the U.S. for processing.

The DPA's concern follows a landmark ruling (Schrems II) by Europe's top court last summer which invalidated a flagship data transfer arrangement between the EU and the U.S. (Privacy Shield), finding U.S. surveillance law to be incompatible with EU privacy rights.

The fallout from Schrems II has been slow to manifest -- beyond an instant blanket of legal uncertainty. However, a number of European DPAs are now investigating the use of U.S.-based digital services because of the data transfer issue, in some instances publicly warning against the use of mainstream U.S. tools like Facebook and Zoom because user data cannot be adequately safeguarded when it's taken over the pond.

German agencies are among the most proactive in this respect. But the EU's data protection supervisor is also investigating the bloc's use of cloud services from U.S. giants Amazon and Microsoft over the same data transfer concern.

At the same time, negotiations between the European Commission and the Biden administration to seek a replacement data transfer deal remain ongoing. However, EU lawmakers have repeatedly warned against any quick fix -- saying reform of U.S. surveillance law is likely required before there can be a revived Privacy Shield. And as the legal limbo continues, a growing number of public bodies in Europe are facing pressure to ditch U.S.-based services in favor of compliant local alternatives.

In the Hamburg case, the DPA says it took the step of issuing the Senate Chancellory with a public warning after the body did not provide an adequate response to concerns raised earlier.

The agency asserts that use of Zoom by the public body does not comply with the GDPR's requirement for a valid legal basis for processing personal data, writing: "The documents submitted by the Senate Chancellery on the use of Zoom show that [GDPR] standards are not being adhered to."

The DPA initiated a formal procedure earlier, via a hearing, on June 17, 2021, but says the Senate Chancellory failed to stop using the videoconferencing tool. Nor did it provide any additional documents or arguments to demonstrate compliance usage. Hence, the DPA taking the step of a formal warning, under Article 58 (2) (a) of the GDPR.

In a statement, Ulrich Kühn, the acting Hamburg commissioner for data protection and freedom of information, dubbed it "incomprehensible" that the regional body was continuing to flout EU law in order to use Zoom -- pointing out that a local alternative, provided by the German company Dataport (which supplies software to a number of state, regional and local government bodies) is readily available.

In the statement [translated with Google Translate], Kühn said: “Public bodies are particularly bound to comply with the law. It is therefore more than regrettable that such a formal step had to be taken. At the [Senate Chancellery of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg], all employees have access to a tried and tested video conference tool that is unproblematic with regard to third-country transmission. As the central service provider, Dataport also provides additional video conference systems in its own data centers. These are used successfully in other regions such as Schleswig-Holstein. It is therefore incomprehensible why the Senate Chancellery insists on an additional and legally highly problematic system."

We've reached out to the Hamburg DPA and Senate Chancellory with questions.

Update: A spokesman for the Hamburg DPA told us: "Currently, there are no plans for further formal steps. We expect the addressed administration to assess our legal reasoning and draw the necessary consequences. Of course, we are always open to further talks, looking for possible ways forward. That is what a formal warning is for in the first place: to make a controller aware of problems he will eventually run into if he stays course."

Zoom has also been contacted for comment.

Update: A Zoom spokesperson said:

“Zoom is proud to work with the City of Hamburg and many other leading German organizations, businesses and education institutions. The privacy and security of our users are top priorities for Zoom, and we take seriously the trust our users place in us. Zoom is committed to complying with all applicable privacy laws, rules, and regulations in the jurisdictions within which it operates, including the GDPR.”

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