Data Sharing between Public Bodies

The principle disadvantage, to the data protection lawyer, of the failure of Esperanto is that every now and then the CJEU hands down a judgment which is only available in French, and even Panopticon cannot blog every entry in Franglais. Such is the problem raised by the Opinion of the Advocate General (Cruz Villalon) in Case C-201/14 Bara v Presedintele Casei Nationala de Asigurari de Sanatate. Readers will have to forgive any failure to capture the nuances.

Bara is a reference from the Romanian courts and contains a number of questions, the majority of which concern the compatibility of national tax authority arrangements with Article 124 TFEU (which prohibits in most cases privileged access for public bodies to financial institutions). Those need not concern us, not least because the AG considered them to be inadmissible.

However, the fourth question referred was in the following terms: “May personal data be processed by authorities for which such data were not intended where such an operation gives rise, retroactively, to financial loss?” The context appears to be that people deriving their income from independent activities were called to pay their contributions to the National Fund for health insurance, following a tax notice issued by the Romanian health insurance fund. However, that tax notice was calculated on the basis of data on income provided National Tax Administration Agency under an internal administrative protocol. The complaint was that the transfer by the Tax Agency to the Health Insurance Fund of personal data, particularly related to income, was in breach of Directive 95/46/EC because no consent had been provided to the transfer, the data subjects had not been informed of the transfer and the transfer was not for the same purpose as the data was originally supplied.

The Advocate General answered the fourth question by saying that the Directive precludes national legislation which allows a public institution of a Member State to process personal data that has been supplied by another public institution, including the data relating to the income of the persons concerned, without the latter having been previously informed of this transmission or treatment. This was despite the fact that the AG recognised that the Romanian bodies had a legitimate interest in being able to properly tax self-employed persons; the informal protocol did not constitute a legislative measure setting out a relevant national exemption under Article 13. The AG stressed that the requirement of notification in Article 11 had not been complied with, and that the data subjects accordingly had been unable to object to the transfer. The data subjects had not given their unambiguous consent. Although Article 7(e) (necessary for the performance of a task) could apply to a transfer of income data, it had to be shown that it was strictly necessary for the realisation of the functions of the Health Insurance Fund. (This appears to be a higher test being imposed than the usual interpretation of necessary as ‘reasonably necessary’, as per the Supreme Court in South Lanarkshire). The AG did not consider that test met.

It remains, of course, to be seen whether the CJEU will take the same approach; but it seems fairly likely that Bara will produce a judgment which confirms the illegality of inter-institutional transfer of personal data without express consent or a carefully defined need which is prescribed by law. There is nothing ground-breaking in that conclusion, but it is an important reiteration of the need for data controllers anywhere in the EU to think carefully about the authorisation they have to hand over personal data to other bodies; informal agreements or policy documents are not sufficient without a legal underpinning (through the DPA) or consent of the data subject.

The forthcoming judgment in Case C-582/14, Breyer will also raise issues over consent in the context of IP information retained by websites, along with the vexed question of whether an IP address can constitute personal data when combined with other information available to a third party (issues similar to those raised in Vidal-Hall v Google, on which see here). When the final judgments in Bara and Breyer appear, so will the analysis of some intrepid blogger of this parish.

Christopher Knight