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A Look-Back and Ahead on Data Protection in Latin America and Spain

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We’re proud to announce a new updated version of The State of Communications Privacy Laws in eight Latin American countries and Spain. For over a year, EFF has worked with partner organizations to develop detailed questions and answers (FAQs) around communications privacy laws. Our work builds upon previous and ongoing research of such developments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Panama, Peru, and Spain. We aim to understand each country’s legal challenges, in order to help us spot trends, identify the best and worst standards, and provide recommendations to look ahead. This post about data protection developments in the region is one of a series of posts on the current State of Communications Privacy Laws in Latin America and Spain. 

As we look back at the past ten years in data protection, we have seen considerable legal progress in granting users’ control over their personal lives. Since 2010, sixty-two new countries have enacted data protection laws, giving a total of 142 countries with data protection laws worldwide. In Latin America, Chile was the first country to adopt such a law in 1999, followed by Argentina in 2000. Several countries have now followed suit: Uruguay (2008), Mexico (2010), Peru (2011), Colombia (2012), Brazil (2018), Barbados (2019), and Panama (2019). While there are still different privacy approaches, data protection laws are no longer a purely European phenomenon.

Yet, contemporary developments in European data protection law continue to have an enormous influence in the region—in particular, the EU’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Since 2018, several countries, including Barbados and Panama have led the way in adopting GDPR-inspired laws in the region, promising the beginning of a new generation of data protection legislation. In fact, the privacy protections of Brazil’s new GDPR-inspired law took effect this month, on September 18, after the Senate pushed back on a delaying order from President Jair Bolsonaro.

But when it comes to data protection in the law enforcement context, few countries have adopted the latest steps of the European Union. The EU Police Directive, a law on the processing of personal data for police forces, has not yet become a Latin American phenomenon. Mexico is the only country with a specific data protection regulation for the public sector. In doing so, countries in the Americas are missing a crucial opportunity to strengthen their communications privacy safeguards with rights and principles common to the global data protection toolkit.

New GDPR-Inspired Data Protection Laws
BrazilBarbados, and Panama have been the first countries in the region to adopt GDPR-inspired data protection laws. Panama’s law, approved in 2019, will enter into force in March 2021. 

Brazil’s law has faced an uphill battle. The provisions creating the oversight authority came into force in December 2018, but it took the government one and a half years to introduce a decree implementing its structure. The decree, however, will only have legal force when the President of the Board is officially appointed and approved by the Senate. No appointment has been made as of the publication of this post. For the rest of the law, February 2020 was the original deadline to enter into force. This was later changed to August 2020. The law was then further delayed to May 2021 through an Executive Act issued by President Bolsonaro. Yet, in a surprising positive twist, Brazil’s Senate stopped President Bolsonaro’s deferral in August. That means the law is now in effect, except for the penalties’ section which have been deferred again, to August 2021. 

Definition of Personal Data 
Like the GDPR, Brazil and Panama’s laws include a comprehensive definition of personal data. It includes any information concerning an identified or identifiable person. The definition of personal data in Barbados’s law has certain limitations. It only protects data which relates to an individual who can be identified “from that data; or from that data together with other information which is in the possession of or is likely to come into the possession of the provider.” Anonymized data in Brazil, Panama, and Barbados falls outside the scope of the law. There are also variations in how these countries define anonymized data.

Panama defines it as data that cannot be re-identified by reasonable means. However, the law doesn’t set explicit parameters to guide this assessment. Brazil’s law makes it clear that anonymized data will be considered personal data if the anonymization process is reversed using exclusively the provider’s own means, or if it can be reversed with reasonable efforts. The Brazilian law defines objective factors to determine what’s reasonable such as the cost and time necessary to reverse the anonymization process, according to the technologies available, and exclusive use of the provider’s own means.  These parameters affect big tech companies with extensive computational power and large collections of data, which will need to determine if their own resources could be used to re-identify anonymized data. This provision should not be interpreted in a way that ignores scenarios where the sharing or linking of anonymized data with other data sets, or publicly available information, leads to the re-identification of the data.

Right to Portability 
The three countries grant users the right to portability—a right to take their data from a service provider and transfer it elsewhere. Portability adds to the so-called ARCO (Access, Rectification, Cancellation, and Opposition) rights—a set of users’ rights that allow them to exercise control over their own personal data.

Enforcers of portability laws will need to make careful decisions about what happens when one person wants to port away data that relates both to them and another person, such as their social graph of contacts and contact information like phone numbers. This implicates the privacy and other rights of more than one person. Also, while portability helps users leave a platform, it doesn’t help them communicate with others who still use the previous one. Network effects can prevent upstart competitors from taking off. This is why we also need interoperability to enable users to interact with one another across the boundaries of large platforms. 

Again, different countries have different approaches. The Brazilian law tries to solve the multi-person data and interoperability issues by not limiting the “ported data” to data the user has given to a provider. It also doesn’t detail the format to be adopted. Instead, the data protection authority can set the standards among others for interoperability, security, retention periods, and transparency. In Panama, portability is a right and a principle. It is one of the general data protection principles that guide the interpretation and implementation of their overarching data protection law. As a right, it resembles the GDPR model. The user has the right to receive a copy of their personal data in a structured, commonly used, and machine-readable format. The right applies only when the user has provided their data directly to the service provider  and has given their consent or when the data is needed for the execution of a contract. Panama’s law expressly states that portability is “an irrevocable right” that can be requested at any moment. 

Portability rights in Barbados are similar to those in Panama. But, like the GDPR, there are some limitations. Users can only exercise their rights to directly port their data from one provider to another when technically feasible. Like Panama, users can port data that they have provided themselves to the providers, and not data about themselves that other users have shared.  

Automated Decision-Making About Individuals
Automated decision-making systems are making continuous decisions about our lives to aid or replace human decision making. So there is an emerging GDPR-inspired right not to be subjected to solely automated decision-making processes that can produce legal or similarly significant effects on the individual. This new right would apply, for example, to automated decision-making systems that use “profiles” to predict aspects of our personality, behavior, interests, locations, movements, and habits. With this new right, the user can contest the decisions made about them, and/or obtain an explanation about the logic of the decision. Here, too, there are a few variations among countries. 

Brazilian law establishes that the user has a right to review decisions affecting them that are based solely on the automated processing of personal data. These include decisions intended to define personal, professional, consumer, or credit profiles, or other traits of someone’s personality. Unfortunately, President Bolsonaro vetoed a provision requiring human review in this automated-decision-making. On the upside, the user has a right to request the provider to disclose information on the criteria and procedures adopted for automated decision-making, though unfortunately there is an exception for trade and industrial secrets.

In Barbados, the user has the right to know, upon request to the provider, about the existence of decisions based on automated processing of personal data, including profiling. As in other countries, this includes access to information about the logic involved and the envisaged consequences on them. Barbados users also have the right not to be subject to automated decision-making processes without human involvement, and to automated decisions that will produce legal or similarly significant effects on the individual, including profiling. There are exceptions for when automated decisions are: necessary for entering or performing a contract between the user and the provider; authorized by law; or based on user consent. Barbados has defined consent similar to the GDPR’s definition. That means there must be a freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous indication of the user’s wishes to the processing of their personal data. The user has the ability to change their mind

Panama law also grants users the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing of their personal data, without human involvement, but this right only applies when the process produces negative legal effects concerning the user or detrimentally affects the users’ rights. As in Barbados, Panama allows automated decisions that are necessary for entering or performing a contract, based on the user’s consent, or permitted by law. But Panama defines “consent” in a less user-protective manner: when a person provides a “manifestation” of their will.

Legal Basis for the Processing of Personal Data
It is important for data privacy laws to require service providers to have a valid lawful basis in order to process personal data, and to document that basis before starting the processing. If not, the processing will be unlawful. Data protection regimes, including all principles and user’s rights, must apply regardless of whether consent is required or not.

Panama’s new law allows three legal bases other than consent: to comply with a contractual obligation, to comply with a legal obligation, or as authorized by a particular law. Brazil and Barbados set out ten legal bases for personal data processing—four more than the GDPR, with consent as only one of them. Brazilian and Barbados law seeks to balance this approach by providing users with clear and concise information about what providers do with their personal data. It also grants users the right to object to the processing of their data, which allows users to stop or prevent processing. 

Data Protection in the Law Enforcement Context
Latin America lags on a comprehensive data protection regime that applies not just to corporations, but also to public authorities when processing personal data for law enforcement purposes. The EU, on the other hand, has adopted not just the GDPR but also the EU Police Directive, a law that regulates the processing of personal data for police forces. Most Latam data protection laws exempt law enforcement and intelligence activities from the application of the law. However, in Colombia, some data protection rules apply to the public sector. That nation’s GDPL applies to the public sector, with exceptions for national security, defense, anti-money-laundering regulations, and intelligence. The Constitutional Court has stated that these exceptions are not absolute exclusions from the law’s application, but an exemption to just some provisions. Complementary statutory law should regulate them, subject to the proportionality principle. 

Spain has not implemented the EU’s Police Directive yet. As a result, personal data processing for law enforcement activities remains held to the standards of the country’s previous data protection law. Argentina’s and Chile’s laws do apply to law enforcement agencies, and Mexico has a specific data protection regulation for the public sector. But Peru and Panama exclude law enforcement agencies from the scope of their data protection laws. Brazil’s law creates an exception to personal data processing solely for public safety, national security, and criminal investigations. Still, it lays down that specific legislation has to be approved to regulate these activities. 

Recommendations and Looking Ahead
Communication privacy has much to gain with the intersection of its traditional inviolability safeguards and the data protection toolkit. That intersection helps entrench international human rights standards applicable to law enforcement access to communications data. The principles of data minimization and purpose limitation in the data protection world correlate with the necessity, adequacy, and proportionality principles under international human rights law. They are necessary to curb massive data retention or dragnet government access to data. The idea that any personal data processing requires a legitimate basis upholds the basic tenets of legality and legitimate aim to place limitations on fundamental rights. Law enforcement access to communications data must be clearly and precisely prescribed by law. No other legitimate basis than the compliance with a legal obligation is acceptable in this context. 

Data protection transparency and information safeguards reinforce a user’s right to a notification when government authorities have requested their data. European courts have asserted this right stems from privacy and data protection safeguards. In the Tele2 Sverige AB and Watson cases, the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) held that “national authorities to whom access to the retained data has been granted must notify the persons affected . . . as soon as that notification is no longer liable to jeopardize the investigations being undertaken by those authorities.” Before that, in Szabó and Vissy v. Hungary, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had declared that notifying users of surveillance measures is also inextricably linked to the right to an effective remedy against the abuse of monitoring powers.

Data protection transparency and information safeguards can also play a key role in fostering greater insight into companies’ and governments’ practices when it comes to requesting and handing over users’ communications data. In collaboration with EFF, many Latin American NGOs have been pushing Internet Service Providers to publish their law enforcement guidelines and aggregate information on government data requests. We’ve made progress over the years, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. When it comes to public oversight, data protection authorities should have the legal mandate to supervise personal data processing by public entities, including law enforcement agencies. They should be impartial and independent authorities, conversant in data protection and technology, and have adequate resources in exercising the functions assigned to them.

There are already many essential safeguards in the Latam region. Most countries’ constitutions have explicitly recognized privacy as a fundamental right, and most have adopted data protection laws.  Each constitution recognized a general right to private life or intimacy or a set of multiple, specific rights: a right to the inviolability of communications; an explicit data protection right (Chile, Mexico, Spain); or “habeas data” (Argentina, Peru, Brazil) as either a right or legal remedy. (In general, habeas data protects the right of any person to find out what data is held about themselves.) And, most recently, a landmark ruling of Brazil’s Supreme Court has recognized data protection as a fundamental right drawn from the country’s Constitution.

Across our work in the region, our FAQs help to spot loopholes, flag concerning standards, or highlight pivotal safeguards (or lack thereof). It’s clear that the rise of data protection laws has helped secure user privacy across the region: but more needs to be done. Strong data protection rules that apply to law enforcement activities would enhance communication privacy protections in the region. More transparency is urgently needed, both in how the regulations will be implemented, and what additional work private companies and the public sector are taking to pro-actively protect user data.

We invite everyone to read these reports and reflect on what work we should champion and defend in the days ahead, and what still needs to be done.


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About The Author

Katitza Rodriguez

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows. Visit https://www.eff.org

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