Admi­nis­tra­ti­ve Court of Mainz: end-to-end encryp­ti­on of e‑mails requi­red only in case of high risk

By Judgment of 17 Decem­ber 2020 (Case No. 1 K 778/19.MZ) (only in Ger­man), the Admi­nis­tra­ti­ve Court of Mainz ruled that it is not a vio­la­ti­on of the GDPR for per­sons sub­ject to pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy obli­ga­ti­ons to send out e‑mails with transport-layer encryp­ti­on. The court found that end-to-end encryp­ti­on is requi­red only in case of high risk.

The Case

The case befo­re the Admi­nis­tra­ti­ve Court of Mainz was based on a com­plaint filed by an att­or­ney chal­len­ging a war­ning from the Rhineland-Palatinate Data Pro­tec­tion Aut­ho­ri­ty. The aut­ho­ri­ty had sent the att­or­ney a war­ning in accordance with Artic­le 58(2)b of the GDPR becau­se he had sent out e‑mails wit­hout end-to-end encryp­ti­on, which the aut­ho­ri­ty con­side­red to be a vio­la­ti­on of the IT secu­ri­ty requi­re­ments of the GDPR. The aut­ho­ri­ty took the view that unen­crypt­ed e‑mails do not offer ade­qua­te secu­ri­ty for mes­sa­ges con­tai­ning sen­si­ti­ve infor­ma­ti­on and that the att­or­ney, as a per­son sub­ject to duties of pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy, should set a good exam­p­le by edu­ca­ting his employees about data pro­tec­tion and ins­truc­ting them accordingly.

The Court’s Ruling

But in its decis­i­on, the Admi­nis­tra­ti­ve Court of Mainz ruled that the attorney’s com­plaint against the war­ning is admis­si­ble and well-founded.

With regard to the admis­si­bi­li­ty of the com­plaint, the court found that the Com­mis­sio­ner for Data Pro­tec­tion and Free­dom of Infor­ma­ti­on of the Sta­te of Rhineland-Palatinate is the right defen­dant for dis­pu­tes bet­ween the sta­te super­vi­so­ry aut­ho­ri­ty and natu­ral or legal per­sons pur­su­ant to Artic­le 78(1) and (2) of the GDPR.

On the ques­ti­on of whe­ther the com­plaint is well-founded, the court ruled that the authority’s war­ning is in vio­la­ti­on of sub­stan­ti­ve law, poin­ting out that sen­ding out e‑mails wit­hout end-to-end encryp­ti­on or other secu­ri­ty mea­su­res bey­ond (obli­ga­to­ry) transport-layer encryp­ti­on does not vio­la­te Artic­le 5 of the GDPR. The court noted that, while Artic­le 5(1)(f) and (2) of the GDPR does requi­re con­trol­lers to ensu­re appro­pria­te secu­ri­ty when pro­ces­sing per­so­nal data, it does not fol­low that end-to-end encryp­ti­on is requi­red. Rather, Artic­le 32(1) of the GDPR requi­res “appro­pria­te tech­ni­cal and orga­niza­tio­nal mea­su­res.” While encryp­ti­on is express­ly men­tio­ned in Artic­le 32(1)(a) of the GDPR, the court found that, even for per­sons sub­ject to pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy obli­ga­ti­ons (such as att­or­neys), an appro­pria­te level of secu­ri­ty in terms of Artic­le 32(1) of the GDPR can be attai­ned by using (obli­ga­to­ry) transport-layer encryp­ti­on, unless a hig­her level of secu­ri­ty is requi­red in any indi­vi­du­al case.


The court’s decis­i­on is a wel­co­me deve­lo­p­ment for com­pa­nies, even tho­se which are not sub­ject to pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy obli­ga­ti­ons, sin­ce it cla­ri­fies that the need for IT secu­ri­ty mea­su­res to satis­fy the requi­re­ments of data pro­tec­tion law can­not be asses­sed with a broad brush. Rather, this need depends on the indi­vi­du­al pro­ces­sing ope­ra­ti­on and, in par­ti­cu­lar, on the exis­ting risk in each case. Spe­ci­fi­cal­ly, Artic­le 32(2) of the GDPR does not estab­lish any man­da­to­ry mini­mum stan­dards which com­pa­nies are requi­red to imple­ment or a con­clu­si­ve list of cri­te­ria which can play a role in deter­mi­ning the appro­pria­te level of pro­tec­tion. With this dif­fe­ren­tia­ted view, the court rejec­ted the blan­ket asser­ti­ons by some data pro­tec­tion aut­ho­ri­ties about the need for end-to-end encryp­ti­on on the part of per­sons sub­ject to pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy obli­ga­ti­ons. But this is just an iso­la­ted decis­i­on at the moment, so that super­vi­so­ry aut­ho­ri­ties which requi­re end-to-end encryp­ti­on for e‑mails con­tai­ning per­so­nal data sent out by per­sons sub­ject to pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy obli­ga­ti­ons can­not be expec­ted to aban­don their view, howe­ver much that view merits cri­ti­cism. Accor­din­gly, com­pa­nies which are sub­ject to duties of pro­fes­sio­nal sec­re­cy should ensu­re that they careful­ly docu­ment their risk assess­ment in con­nec­tion with the­se pro­ces­sing acti­vi­ties so that they can show that an ele­va­ted risk does not exist in this par­ti­cu­lar case.


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