Friday 29 March 2013

Does Windows Azure comply with UK/EU Data Privacy Law?

Update, November 2016

Times have changed and the content of my article from 2013 may no longer be correct due to a recent ruling by the European Court of Justice.  Read more here:


Yes, it does.  The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK considers that Windows Azure provides adequate protection for the rights of individuals with regard to their data that is held on Windows Azure. 
Given that you have the other relevant measures in place to comply with the Data Protection Act, this means that you go ahead and use Windows Azure to store your customers’ personal information.  As Microsoft comply with the EU/US Safe Harbor Framework, the data can be considered to remain solely within the EU geographic region.


As developers we often need to store information about individuals, such as their name and email address.  When people share this information with us, they expect that we will treat the information properly and respect their privacy. 
In the UK, the Data Protection Act provides a legal framework to define how companies capture and process information about individuals.  For instance, they may choose to let you send them an email newsletter, but tell you that they do not want to receive then from other companies that you work with.
In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is the body responsible for upholding information rights and privacy for individuals.  The ICO can and do fine companies who do not treat individuals information properly.  These fines are quite large too!

To the Cloud

As developers we increasingly want to be able to use hosted cloud services to build our web sites and internet enabled applications.  There are a number of choices out there that include large offerings such as Windows Azure and Amazon Web Services, but also more targeted offerings such as MongoHQ.
If we store any information about an individual (in the UK the law relates to living individuals), then any cloud service that we use as developers must ensure that the data about the individuals is protected.

Keep it local

Other member states of the European Union have similar data protection laws and there is a common legal framework to protect the rights of individuals in the EU.
To be able to benefit from the protection that this legal framework gives, the individual’s data has to remain physically within the EU.  If the data were to be held in another country outside of the EU, then the laws of that country would apply to that data.  For example, the US has a very different approach to the protection of individuals data than we do in the EU.

Back to the Cloud

Let’s look at how Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure - two popular US cloud providers - handle this.
Amazon make the statement that any data hosted in one of their EU regions will remain within that region.  You can read that here.  Okay, not much detail in that, but it sounds fine.
Azure talk a little more about this than Amazon and you can read about that here.  If you are eagle eyed, then you will notice that data in Azure EU regions will generally remain in the EU, but may be shipped to the US for disaster recovery purposes.
Oh dear, that sounds like it breaks the condition that data has to remain physically within the EU.

Can I use Azure then?

Yes, you can.  The reasons for this - also stated on Azure Trust Centre Privacy page – is that Microsoft are certified as complying with the EU/US Safe Harbor Framework
This is a legal framework between the EU and the US Department of Commerce that essentially provides EU compliant data protection for data that is moved to the US under the Safe Harbor Framework.  The ICO deem that the Safe Harbor Framework provides adequate protection for the rights of the individual whose data may be transferred to the US by Microsoft.  You can read about that here.

That’s simple then – why the doubt?

So, if it’s that easy, why am I writing this article in the first place?  Well, I’ve been looking at Azure for a while now and wanting to use it for some of my applications.  The advice I had received in the past was basically that once the data was in the US, other US laws, such as the Patriot Act, could override the Safe Harbor Framework and remove the legal protections provided by the Safe Harbor Framework. 
If that was the case, then I would need treat it as if it were being shipped outside of the EU and under the jurisdiction of different data protection laws.  Not something that my customers would want to hear!  Also, the reason why I’d been using Amazon AWS.
I recently spun up a build server on an Azure VM and I absolutely loved the experience of using Azure.  I was thinking what a shame it was that I couldn’t use it more and so I got in touch with the venerable Mr Hanselman, Microsoft developer evangelist extraordinaire, to say “please can we use Azure in Europe?” (I had previously tried other routes, but without getting any answers).
Scott kindly took my question back to the Azure team and then came back with a bunch of challenges for me.  The summary of those being that all I needed was already on the Azure Trust Centre Privacy page.  And, he was quite right too! 
I got onto the phone to the ICO and asked them about it, and they confirmed that this provided “adequate protection for the rights of individuals” and that there are exceptions to data protection law to allow circumstances such as the Courts or the Police to have access as part of their investigations – both in the EU as well as the US – and that I could now just focus on complying with the Data Protection Act requirements. 
Awesome – my future is now on Azure!

A note of caution

It’s worth remembering that the location of the data is just one part of the process of protecting your customers’ data.  You need to make sure that you comply with all other aspects of the relevant data protection laws. 
Generally, the more sensitive the information and the more people about whom you hold that sort of information, the less likely you will be able to host it externally.
In the UK, if you’re not sure about how to go about things, contact the ICO for advice – they’re very helpful people!