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Thirtieth Plenary session: EDPB response to NGOs on Hungarian Decrees and statement on Article 23 GDPR

During its 30th plenary session, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) adopted a statement on data subject rights in connection to the state of emergency in Member States. The Board also adopted a letter in response to a letter from Civil Liberties Union for Europe, Access Now and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) regarding the Hungarian Government’s Decree 179/2020 of 4 May.

The EDPB recalls that, even in these exceptional times, the protection of personal data must be upheld in all emergency measures, thus contributing to the respect of the overarching values of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights on which the Union is founded.

In both the statement and the letter the EDPB reiterates that the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) remains applicable and allows for an efficient response to the pandemic, while at the same time protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. Data protection law already enables data-processing operations necessary to contribute to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement recalls the main principles related to the restrictions on data subject rights in connection to the state of emergency in Member States:

•    Restrictions which are general, extensive or intrusive to the extent that they void a fundamental right of its basic content cannot be justified.
•    Under specific conditions, Article 23 GDPR allows national legislators to restrict via a legislative measure the scope of the obligations of controllers and processors and the rights of data subjects when such a restriction respects the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms and is a necessary and proportionate measure in a democratic society to safeguard important objectives of general public interest of the Union or of a Member State, such as in particular public health.
•    Data subject rights are at the core of the fundamental right to data protection and Article 23 GDPR should be interpreted and read bearing in mind that their application should be the general rule. As restrictions are exceptions to the general rule, they should only be applied in limited circumstances.
•    Restrictions must be provided for ‘by law’, and the law establishing restrictions should be sufficiently clear as to allow citizens to understand the conditions in which controllers are empowered to resort to them. Additionally, restrictions must be foreseeable for persons subject to them. Restrictions imposed for a duration not precisely limited in time, which apply retroactively or are subject to undefined conditions, do not meet the foreseeability criterion.
•    The mere existence of a pandemic or any other emergency situation alone is not a sufficient reason to provide for any kind of restriction on the rights of data subjects; rather, any restriction must clearly contribute to the safeguard of an important objective of general public interest of the EU or of a Member State.  
•    The emergency state, adopted in a pandemic context, is a legal condition, which may legitimise restrictions of data subject rights, provided these restrictions only apply insofar as it is strictly necessary and proportionate in order to safeguard the public health objective. Thus, restrictions must be strictly limited in scope and in time, since data subject rights can be restricted but not denied. Additionally, the guarantees provided for under Article 23(2) GDPR must fully apply.
•    Restrictions adopted in the context of a state of emergency suspending or postponing the application of data subject rights and the obligations incumbent to data controllers and processors, without any clear limitation in time, would equate to a de facto blanket suspension of those rights and would not be compatible with the essence of the fundamental rights and freedoms.

Furthermore, the EDPB announced it will issue guidelines on the implementation of Article 23 of the GDPR in the coming months.

The agenda of the 30th pleanry is available here

Note to editors:
Please note that all documents adopted during the EDPB Plenary are subject to the necessary legal, linguistic and formatting checks and will be made available on the EDPB website once these have been completed.