In the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, the EDPB adopted Guidelines on the processing of health data for scientific research purposes to clarify some legal questions.
Considering that life may not return to normal until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, researchers from across the globe are focusing their efforts on producing results as soon as possible. In this context, questions regarding the application of the GDPR keep arising, therefore the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) has released guidelines on the processing of health data for scientific research purposes with the aim of providing basic guidance.
What is “health data”?
Article 4 (15) GDPR defines “data concerning health” as “personal data related to the physical or mental health of a natural person, including the provision of health care services, which reveal information about his or her health status”. This meaning also covers the following:
- Information that becomes health data by cross referencing with other data thus revealing the state of health or health risks, such as the assumption of a person being at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 because of his medical conditions.
- Information that becomes health data because of its usage in a specific context, such as information regarding a recent trip to a region affected with COVID-19.
The EDPB points out that “processing for the purpose of scientific research” should be interpreted in a broad manner in line with Recital 159 GDPR.
What is the legal basis for the processing?
According to the GDPR, processing of special categories of personal data is only allowed in some scenarios. The ones that may be more relevant when it comes to the processing of health data for scientific research purposes during COVID-19 pandemic are the following:
- The data subject has given explicit consent.
- Processing relates to personal data which are manifestly made public by the data subject.
- Processing is necessary for the purposes of preventive or occupational medicine.
- Processing is necessary for reasons of public interest in the area of public health.
- Processing is necessary for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes based on Union or Member State law.
It should be noted also that “further processing for […] scientific research purposes […] shall, in accordance with Article 89 (1), not be considered to be incompatible with the initial purposes”, subject to appropriate safeguards.
Should the data subject be informed?
Pursuant to Articles 13 and 14 GDPR, the data subjects should be informed at the time when personal data is gathered, or “within a reasonable period after obtaining the personal data, but at the latest within one month” where it is not collected from the data subject.
However, considering that it is often not possible to fully identify the purpose of personal data processing for scientific research purposes at the time of data collection, the EDPB recommends to deliver the information to the data subject within a reasonable period of time before the implementation of the new research project.
There are four exemptions of the information obligation though:
- The data subject already has the information.
- The provision of such information proves impossible, would involve a disproportionate effort or is likely to render impossible or seriously impair the achievement of the objectives of that processing. A controller seeking to rely on this exemption should demonstrate the factors that actually prevent it from providing the information to the data subjects or carry out a balancing exercise to assess the effort involved against the potential impact and effects of not providing the information.
- Obtaining or disclosure is expressly laid down by Union or Member State law. This exemption is conditional upon the law in question providing “appropriate measures to protect the data subject’s legitimate interests”.
- The personal data must remain confidential subject to an obligation of professional secrecy.
What other measures should be taken?
In light of the data minimisation principle, the EDPB deems essential to specify the research questions and assess the type and amount of data necessary to properly answer them before proceeding. Additionally, the data should be anonymised where possible.
Proportionate storage periods shall be set as well, taking into account criteria such as the length and the purpose of the research.
As for the security measures that should be implemented, together with pseudonymisation, encryption, non-disclosure agreements and strict access role distribution, the EDPS stresses that a data protection impact assessment should be carried out when such processing is “likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons”, and remarks the importance of data protection officers as a key role that should be involved in the process.
What about the exercise of data subjects’ rights?
Together with the information obligation exemptions addressed above, Article 17 (3) (d) states that the right to erasure “shall not apply to the extent that processing is necessary for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes in accordance with Article 89(1) in so far as the right referred to in paragraph 1 is likely to render impossible or seriously impair the achievement of the objectives of that processing”.
It has to be noted that, in the light of the jurisprudence of the CJEU, all restrictions of the rights of data subjects must apply only in so far as it is strictly necessary.
Are international data transfers allowed?
In the absence of an adequacy decision pursuant to Article 45 (3) GDPR or appropriate safeguards pursuant to Article 46 GDPR, Article 49 GDPR envisages certain specific situations under which transfers of personal data can take place as an exception, such as:
- The data subject has explicitly consented to the proposed transfer.
- The transfer is necessary for important reasons of public interest.
It should be noted, however, that repetitive transfers of data to third countries, part of a long lasting research project in this regard, would need to be framed with appropriate safeguards in accordance with Article 46 GDPR.