Tag Archives: Jehova’s Witnesses

Door-to-door gathering of data by religious group goes to the CJEU

Non-automated processing | Filing system | Household Exemption | Controller | Religious community

The Court of Justice of the EU received questions for a preliminary ruling from Finland regarding the practice of a religious group (Jehova’s Witnesses) to gather and record data after door-to-door visits, without informing the concerned individuals about this practice. The questions referred in Case C-25/17 Tietosuojavaltuutettu v Jehovah’s Witnesses concern the interpretation of several key points of Directive 95/45:

  1. Exceptions from the application of the Directive – and particularly Article 3(2) second paragraph, which excludes processing “by a natural person in the course of a purely personal or household activity” from the material scope of the Directive. The referring court wants the CJEU to clarify whether this exception applies to gathering data and writing observations in paper file connected to the door-to-door activity, by members of the religious group (Question 1).
  2. The concept of “filing system” as defined in Article 2(d) of the Directive.The question referred by the national Court is whether, taken as a whole, the manual collection of personal data (name and address and other information and characteristics of a person) carried out in connection with door-to-door evangelical work constitutes a filing system, being thus subject to the application of the Directive (Question 2).
  3. The concept of “controller” under Article 2(d) of the Directive. In particular, the referring court wants the CJEU to clarify whether in this situation the controller is considered to be the religious community as a whole, “even though the religious community claims that only the individual members carrying out evangelical work have access to the data collected” (Questions 3 and 4).

Without knowing the details of the case, and based only on the information available in the questions referred by the national Court, here is my bet on how the CJEU will reply:

  • The definition of “purely household activity” does not extend to the door-to-door evangelical work of a religious community; this exemption is to be interpreted strictly (“must be narrowly construed”; “must apply only in so far as is strictly necessary”), according to the CJEU in C-212/13 Rynes (§28 and §29). The CJEU also explained that this exception applies “only where it is carried out in the purely personal or household setting of the person processing the data” (§31) – which is not the case of representatives of a religious community gathering information during evangelical work.
  • The records the evangelical workers keep should be considered as constituting a “filing system”. This concept is defined as “any structured set of personal data which are accessible according to specific criteria, whether centralized, decentralized or dispersed on a functional or geographical basis”. According to Recital 15 of the Directive, data in a filing system is “structured according to specific criteria relating to individuals, so as to permit easy access to the personal data in question”. If the religious community would claim that their records are not structured according to specific criteria – e.g. ZIP codes; members of the community/non-members; individuals interested in the community/individuals not interested, and that they don’t allow easy access to the personal data in question, then the purpose of having a detailed record would not be achieved. In other words, having an unstructured file is incongruent with the purpose of the activity. While it is true that the Member States have been given a margin of appreciation to lay down different criteria for determining the constituents of a structured set of personal data and the different criteria governing access to such a set, the criteria must be compatible with the definition in the Directive. Moreover, applying “loosely” the definition would amount to a limitation in relation to the protection of personal data, which must apply “only in so far as is strictly necessary” (Rynes §28, DRI §52).
  • The controller of this processing operation should be considered the religious community, as this entity establishes the purposes of the processing activity (the records are probably meant to facilitate the evangelical work of the community – there is no reference in the questions sent to the declared purpose of this activity, but it is only logical that such records are kept to facilitate the evangelical work) and the means of this activity (“by dividing up the areas in which the activity is carried out among members involved in evangelical work, supervising the work of those members and maintaining a list of individuals who do not wish to receive visits from evangelists” – according to the referring Court)

Since this new case provided an opportunity to discuss processing of personal data done by a religious community, there are a couple of additional points to be made.

First of all, according to Recital 35 of the Directive, “processing of personal data by official authorities for achieving aims, laid down in constitutional law or international public law, of officially recognized religious associations is carried out on important grounds of public interest“. This means that the religious associations do not need to rely on consent or on their legitimate interest as lawful grounds for processing. However, relying on public interest for the lawful ground of processing does not mean that they don’t have to comply with all the other obligations under data protection law. For instance, they still have to comply with the data quality principles, they still have to inform data subjects about the details of the processing activity and they still have to reply to requests of access, correction, erasure.

Second, some of the data gathered in such circumstances is sensitive data, as it refers to “religious beliefs” (Article 8 of the Directive, Article 9 of the GDPR). This means that the data should be processed with additional care and strengthened safeguards.

In case you are wondering whether the GDPR specifically addresses processing of data by religious communities, churches, Recital 35 of the Directive was transplanted to the GDPR, in Recital 55. In addition, the GDPR enshrines a specific provision that covers “existing data protection rules of churches and religious associations” – Article 91. This provision allows Member States that have specific legislation (“comprehensive rules”) in place dedicated to churches and religious communities, at the time of entry into force of the GDPR, to continue to apply those rules, but only if “they are brought into line with this Regulation”. In addition, according to the second paragraph, processing of personal data done by churches and religious associations that apply comprehensive national rules according to the first paragraph “shall be subject to the supervision of an independent supervisory authority, which may be specific”. Again, the conditions for this to happen is that this specific supervisory authority must fulfil the conditions laid down for independent supervisory authorities in the GDPR.

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Note: Thanks to Dr. Mihaela Mazilu-Babel for pointing out this new case.

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