“Purpose limitation”, explained by the Article 29 WP

On April 2, Article 29 WP published its Opinion on “purpose limitation”, one of the safeguards which make data protection efficient in Europe.

Purpose limitation protects data subjects by setting limits on how data controllers are able to use their data while also offering some degree of flexibility for data controllers. The concept of purpose limitation has two main building blocks: personal data must be collected for ‘specified, explicit and legitimate’ purposes (purpose specification) and not be ‘further processed in a way incompatible’ with those purposes (compatible use).

Further processing for a different purpose does not necessarily mean that it is incompatible:
compatibility needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. A substantive compatibility assessment requires an assessment of all relevant circumstances. In particular, account should be taken of the following key factors:

– the relationship between the purposes for which the personal data have been collected and the purposes of further processing;
– the context in which the personal data have been collected and the reasonable expectations of the data subjects as to their further use;
– the nature of the personal data and the impact of the further processing on the data subjects;
– the safeguards adopted by the controller to ensure fair processing and to prevent any undue impact on the data subjects.

Conclusions of the Opinion:

First building block: ‘specified, explicit and legitimate’ purposes

With regard to purpose specification, the WP29 highlights the following key considerations:

 Purposes must be specific. This means that – prior to, and in any event, no later than the time when the collection of personal data occurs – the purposes must be precisely and fully identified to determine what processing is and is not included within the specified purpose and to allow that compliance with the law can be assessed and data protection
safeguards can be applied.

 Purposes must be explicit, that is, clearly revealed, explained or expressed in some form in order to make sure that everyone concerned has the same unambiguous understanding of the purposes of the processing irrespective of any cultural or linguistic diversity. Purposes may be made explicit in different ways.

 There may be cases of serious shortcomings, for example where the controller fails to specify the purposes of the processing in sufficient detail or in a clear and unambiguous language, or where the specified purposes are misleading or do not correspond to reality. In any such situation, all the facts should be taken into account to determine the actual purposes, along with the common understanding and reasonable expectations of the data subjects based on the context of the case.

 Purposes must be legitimate. Legitimacy is a broad requirement, which goes beyond a simple cross-reference to one of the legal grounds for the processing referred to under Article 7 of the Directive. It also extends to other areas of law and must be interpreted within the context of the processing. Purpose specification under Article 6 and the requirement to have a lawful ground for processing under Article 7 of the Directive are two separate and cumulative requirements.

 If personal data are further processed for a different purpose
– the new purpose/s must be specified (Article 6(1)(b)), and
– it must be ensured that all data quality requirements (Articles 6(1)(a) to (e)) are also
satisfied for the new purposes.

Second building block: compatible use
 Article 6(1)(b) of the Directive also introduces the notions of ‘further processing’ and ‘incompatible’ use. It requires that further processing must not be incompatible with the purposes for which personal data were collected. The prohibition of incompatible use sets a limitation on further use. It requires that a distinction be made between further use that is ‘compatible’, and further use that is ‘incompatible’, and therefore, prohibited.

 By prohibiting incompatibility rather than requiring compatibility, the legislator seems to give some flexibility with regard to further use. Further processing for a different purpose does not necessarily and automatically mean that it is incompatible, as compatibility needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

 In this context, the WP29 emphasises that the specific provision in Article 6(1)(b) of the Directive on ‘further processing for historical, statistical or scientific purposes’ should be seen as a specification of the general rule, while not excluding that other cases could also be considered as ‘not incompatible’. This leads to a more prominent role for different kinds of safeguards, including technical and organisational measures for functional separation, such as full or partial anonymisation, pseudonymisation, aggregation of data, and privacy enhancing technologies.

The Opinion is available HERE.

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