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By Jarno J. Vanto

What began as a pilot project in 2007 is now up and running under the management of the data protection authority (DPA) of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, in partnership with the DPAs of Madrid (Agencia de Protección de Datos de la Communidad de Madrid) and France (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et de Libertés, or CNIL), among other entities. Backed by European Commission funding, the European Privacy Seal (the Seal) for IT-products and IT-based services lets companies doing business in the European Union (EU) demonstrate privacy compliance.

The Seal is valid throughout the EU and can be used in both consumer marketing and public procurement, as laws in some EU Member States require governmental authorities to prefer Seal-carrying products over non-certified products in public procurement.

Certifiable products and services

Privacy seals can be awarded to an IT-product, which can be hardware, such as a firewall, or software, such as a database application. Seals can also be awarded to IT-based services, such as online banks, search engines, or data centers. For example, to date, seals have been awarded to Surfboard Holding’s Ixquick’s search engine, Banco Guipuzcoano’s BGNet online banking service, and Microsoft’s Software Protection Platform. To obtain the Seal, these products and services had to pass a two-step certification process. They were evaluated by certified legal and technical experts, first, who issued a findings report that was then validated by Schleswig-Holstein’s DPA.
Currently there are approximately 20 ongoing certification processes.

Seal criteria

The evaluation criteria are based on the EU Data Protection Directive, the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, Article 29 Working Party opinions, and EU Member State data protection statutes. According to Kirsten Bock, the manager of EuroPriSe and the international coordinator for Schleswig-Holstein’s DPA, the European data protection directives, along with the opinions of the Article 29 Working Party, provide the most feasible legal background for the certification, thereby guaranteeing broad acceptance of the Seal. Grounding the certification criteria to these elements indicates that an IT product or an IT-based service facilitates the use of that product or service in a manner that is compliant with European regulations on privacy and data protection, therefore meeting an international demand for a highly respected quality mark for privacy. Ms. Bock says: “EuroPriSe is the only privacy- and data protection-focused seal scheme that is based on the high standards of the European data protection directives and awarded by data protection authorities. The Seal offers a rigorous assessment based on the four-eye principle and a two-step procedure. Independent qualified experts evaluate the products or services and an impartial certification body validates the results. Thus, the Seal cannot be bought; it must be honestly earned in a transparent procedure that adds quality to the certified product or service.”

Legal and technical experts

The independent legal and technical experts chosen to evaluate products and services are required to attend an “Expert Workshop” and pass a training evaluation in order to be admitted as experts. There are experts in 12 countries, currently. According to Ms. Bock, EuroPriSe only admits experts after they have proven their proficiency and passed a demanding test. The experts must have a profound knowledge of privacy and data protection and working experience in IT.

The certification process

According to Sebastian Meissner, an attorney with the Schleswig-Holstein DPA, the certification process takes an average of three to five months and costs an average of 7,000 euros (approximately $10,000 USD). (This estimate does not include fees charged by legal and technical experts.) The duration of the process very much depends on the time it takes for the legal and technical experts to evaluate the product or service and draft the evaluation report. Mr. Meissner states: “Companies should contemplate and discuss with a EuroPriSe expert the actual shape of the target of evaluation as early as possible. They should check whether comprehensive and understandable documentation is available and up-to-date. This can speed up and reduce the costs of a EuroPriSe certification considerably. However, a company starting from scratch may use the certification procedure to work effectively on the documentation and compliance of their product or service.” He adds: “Obstacles may result from shortcomings of the available documentation about the product or service that is the target of evaluation. If the documentation is not comprehensive, understandable, and up-to-date, it is not in line with EuroPriSe requirements and therefore a handicap for the evaluation of the product or service by EuroPriSe experts. Moreover, many companies are not aware of the privacy implications of the logging of personal data—such as the retention of IP addresses in a server log—when starting the certification process, necessitating improvements in the product or service. The EuroPriSe certificate is only granted if the logging of personal data is in line with EU data protection law.”
Advantageously, companies seeking to obtain the Seal may make the necessary changes to their IT product or IT-based service during the certification process without having to go back to the drawing board and start the certification process from scratch. The certification process may also be utilized to make changes that exceed the requirements stipulated by EU data protection law, further differentiating the product or service from its competitors. “Evaluation and certification against the EuroPriSe criteria offers companies a quality procedure to check and verify compliance with the highest recognized privacy standards,” says Ms. Bock. “In most cases it results in a considerable improvement of the service, marketing advantages, and a good return on investment.”

Jarno J. Vanto is an attorney-at-law at Vanto Law PLLC in New York City. Mr. Vanto is certified as a Legal Expert for the European Privacy Seal. He can be reached at jarno.vanto@vantolaw.com.

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