Data Protection Compliant in the Atlassian Cloud

It’s already been long established that the Atlassian Server is coming to an end: For about a year now, Atlassian has not offered any new Server-Licenses, Down- or Upgrades are no longer possible and support for them is ending in less than two years. What is left is Data Center Products or the Atlassian Cloud. Companies that do not want to run their own machinery for a Data-Center solution, have to move to the Cloud. But, how was it again with the data protection and cloud providers outside of the EU?

Thomas Rosin  

An expert on data and information protection, he explains what to look out for in terms of data protection. 

He is a data protection officer and advisor for companies and enterprise groups located in Germany. In addition, he teaches data protection in the master's degree programme in Business Informatics at the Rheinische Fachhochschule Cologne. 

Contact: info@thomasrosin.de
Web: https://www.thomasrosin.de





On-premise vs. Cloud

Atlassian server products not only provided a small entry into the Jira and Confluence world of Atlassian: having the Atlassian server in your own on-site IT infrastructure also gives a positive feeling in terms of data protection. 

The future looks a little different: Support for new browser, Java or database versions as well as general bug fixes has already ended on 15.02.2022. Within the next two years, Atlassian will only offer bug fixes for critical vulnerabilities.

What options are there? For some time now, the manufacturer has been pushing Atlassian Cloud as a low-threshold entry point and particularly emphasizes its high scalability. Here many, but not all, product components of the server are available. You don’t need to operate your own hardware or virtual server infrastructure for these. Atlassian promises a continuous functional expansion of the Cloud and a high level of security.


Data-Center-Licenses

Alternatively, data center licenses offer an option to operate on-premise. However, unlike server licenses, there is no solution for small teams. The smallest data center license starts with 500 users. Business operation is possible either on the company's own hardware or in a private cloud - by means of classic server hosting or Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). However in both solutions, it takes a lot of effort to build up the necessary employee know-how and to maintain the infrastructure. For private Clouds, if required, Atlassian partners also offer the necessary consulting and support for the design, implementation and operation of Atlassian Data Centers.

Companies that do not have their own data center infrastructure or do not even want to acquire one will probably have to deal with the topic of the Cloud: operate a data center system in their "own" Cloud, or go in the Atlassian Cloud as a low-maintenance and more cost-effective software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution.

But what does this mean for data protection?




Data Protection Requirements

The obligations for companies when handling personal data are set out in various laws such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (DS-GVO) or the Federal Data Protection Act (BDSG).

Personal data is information that can be assigned to a natural person. At this point, "natural person" means a living, already born human being. Dead and unborn people are not legally included (they are protected under other laws).

The "person" - whose data we are talking about here - must be "identified or identifiable". That is, this person is not an indeterminable individual or any other being that we assume might be human. Rather, this person is known or it is possible with a certain amount of effort to find this individual.

How much "effort" must be made so that a person is considered identifiable is often disputed. In daily practice, it would probably be sufficient if a person could be identified through data files, looking into IT systems, asking colleagues or another department, searching public directories (e.g. telephone book, internet) or taking legal action (e.g. by filing a criminal complaint).


Examples of typical types of personal data in a Jira or Confluence system:

  • Contact and core data of users (e.g. names, email addresses, function).
  • Avatars
  • Individual access data
  • Communication data (e.g. chat)
  • Activities of the logged-in users within the respective Atlassian application
  • Public or private IP addresses of accessing client systems in log files, possibly also of non-logged-in users
  • If applicable, further personal data in stored documents

To dispel a rumor: data of people in a professional environment, for example professional contact data on a business card, is just as personal data as it is private contact data. At this point, it makes no legal difference whether it is private or business data. What is decisive here is the personal reference.

In data protection, trade and business secrets are only considered if they themselves contain personal data. However, the business-related secret character is not taken into account. However, requirements for the protection of trade and business secrets may exist on this side of data protection through other laws or also contracts with business partners.




Data protection is about personal data. The use of modern business applications is practically impossible without personal data simply because of the existence of user administrations, electronic communication and technical log files. Some examples of typical personal files in Jira or Confluence can be found in the text box "Personal data".

When introducing and operating an Atlassian solution, the legal and, if applicable, customer-contractual requirements of data protection must be taken into account - just as with any other modern business application. The most basic requirements exist regardless of whether an Atlassian solution is operated on-premise or in the Cloud.


This includes:

Legality

Data protection works like a good firewall: the default setting is "deny". In principle, the processing (collection, use, disclosure, etc.) of personal data is only permitted if the law provides an explicit permission regulation (legal basis) for it. Common legal bases are a declaration of consent by the pertaining subject or an existing legal obligation that the company has to fulfill. Employee data is usually processed on the basis of an existing employment contract.

Purpose

Quite simply - personal data may only be used for specified and legitimate (legal basis) purposes. Example: If companies are allowed to use employee data for the performance of employment contracts (for example, sending a pay slip), it is not allowed to use it for another purpose, for example, sending advertising. Data storage without any purpose at all - i.e. only for retention - is generally not permitted.

Necessity and data minimization

Companies may only process the data that is actually necessary for the legitimate purpose. The rule is: as little personal data as possible, as much of it as necessary. Data that is no longer necessary for its original purpose must be deleted. Exception: This is still necessary for other legitimate purposes or to fulfill legal retention obligations for a certain period of time.


Accountability of those responsible

The company responsible for the respective data is in charge of complying with the legal requirements. The responsible company must be able to adequately demonstrate compliance ("accountability") with the legal requirements in data protection. If a company itself acts as a service provider on behalf of another responsible client, then accountability obligations also exist towards this client. Those who already regularly work for other responsible companies are familiar with the long questionnaires, documentation of technical and organizational measures and order processing contracts that have to be answered by their clients. We will cover more of this in a moment. 

Discussions over data protection and Cloud usage.

Entry into the Cloud requires further data protection that must be fulfilled and proven. The two presumably biggest requirements are the subject of many current discussions about the limits and permissibility of using the Cloud.






I. Another company gets access to the data

The use of "the Cloud" is connected with the fact that part of the IT technical activities - the procurement and operation of hardware, the maintenance of operating systems and applications, and the solution of operating problems - is placed in the hands of a third company provider. In addition, appropriate protection - including backup and defense against malware - should also be provided. The possibilities to express wishes and make concrete specifications at this point are usually limited to the service and product portfolio offered by the provider. Ideally, these services are standardized, easily scalable and available to many customers - usually at a lower price than if done individually. 

In the context of using the Cloud, the Cloud provider is also given access to the client's corporate data. It doesn’t matter whether the provider actively takes a look at the data or merely stores the data while data insight is only theoretically possible. As soon as personal data becomes accessible to another company, from its originator, further measures are legally required.

Order processing

In practice, the responsible company and the Cloud provider will construct an order processing contract. The contracting parties regulate how the responsible party's data is to be handled. A special feature is that the client remains legally responsible for their data even if the data is in the hands of the Cloud provider. The legislator has established certain rules for this purpose. This is made possible by contractually obliging the Cloud provider to process the data only within the scope of the commissioned services and under no circumstances to use it for its own purposes or even to pass it on. The data must be adequately protected and the provider must be able to prove this protection. To this end, the person responsible is contractually granted certain rights to issue instructions. These rights to issue instructions are an essential feature of order processing. This is intended to ensure that the responsible company retains control over their data even when it is in the hands of the Cloud provider. In practice, such instructions are not arbitrary, they must be specified. As a rule, the possible instructions are limited to the offered services in a company’s portfolio including any additional services for which a charge may be applied.

In order for the company responsible to be able to adequately judge if everything is in accordance with the contract, they are granted audit and control rights. The idea of this "order processing" model is to contractually bind the Cloud provider to such an extent that the responsible company can continue to fulfill its legal responsibility of the data and prove this by presenting the contract and carrying out documented controls.



How does the “order processing” model work at Atlassian?

When using Atlassian Cloud, classic order processing, as described above, is used. Atlassian provides each customer (client) with the commissioned software products in their own virtual environment, separate from other clients, as an operational software-as-a-service solution. This also includes all necessary operational framework conditions, starting from the maintenance and expansion of required hardware, to the maintenance of the server infrastructure, to individual customer support in the event of technical problems or questions. 

Atlassian is bound by instructions

Direct contact with the client's company data should not exist and if so, exceptionally. Under normal operation, data storage, backups and other protective measures can take place without Atlassian employees taking note of specific company data. Direct contact with the company data should only take place if the client explicitly requests this, e.g. in the case of a support request regarding a specific problem with the client's user administration. Only then is this contact necessary and also desired. Atlassian undertakes an order processing agreement to process client's data only in accordance with the client’s binding instructions. The instructions framework is defined in the Cloud contract and the included service descriptions. The instruction options that are obligatory for data protection, such as the return or deletion of the company data, are required to be in order processing contracts.



Protection of company data and compliance with standards

In the context of order processing, it must be ensured that the Cloud provider takes appropriate technical and organizational measures to fulfill its contractual obligations on the one hand and to ensure the protection of IT systems and data on the other.

Atlassian has aligned its technical and organizational measures with the international standards ISO/IEC 27001 and ISO/IEC 27018 and is regularly audited and certified in this regard by independent bodies. The company makes the current certificates available for download on its website for testing and documentation purposes.

ISO/IEC 27001 is a standard for an information security management system that aims to ensure the protection of IT systems and data in a measurable verifiable system. ISO/IEC 27018 expands this standard to include the topic of personal data in the Cloud.


Atlassian offers extensive documentation detailing the measures they take concerning security, data protection and compliance on its website, Trust Center. This detailed documentation, but also self-representation, is now common practice and can also be found with the large cloud providers such as Amazon AWS or Microsoft. The official ISO certificates as well as the detailed information on the topic of IT security will certainly be of particular interest for the initial audits of future clients.

Compliance with the standards mentioned here is generally an essential prerequisite for entry into a Cloud solution. And this is where a notable difference becomes apparent in the level of protection companies' self-operated infrastructure provides. The server in one's own business premises feels quite secure; however, according to ISO/IEC 27018 it is rarely audited. On the other hand, the infrastructure of Cloud providers is regularly audited and certified.



Subcontractors of Atlassian

Order processing also includes a look into the back end of the Cloud provider: to the subcontractors used by the Cloud provider.

Atlassian uses Amazon AWS, one of the major global Cloud providers, for a significant part of the Atlassian Cloud infrastructure. The level of security expected by the above standards continues with Amazon AWS. Independent certifications to ISO/IEC 27001, 27018 and other standards are also available here.

Additionally, Atlassian uses other service providers for certain IT services (including email and telecommunications) as well as for customer and product services. Atlassian publishes all subcontractors it uses on its website, and clients can also be informed of any changes via RSS feeds.


Atlassian contractually guarantees to publish changes at least 14 days in advance and grants clients a right to object; in the event of an objection, an individual clarification process is offered. If the client and Atlassian do not find an amicable solution with regard to the use of a new subcontractor, the client has an extraordinary right to terminate.

Solutions of this kind are now considered standard among Cloud providers. Of course, a Cloud provider cannot ask each of its clients individually for permission when a new subcontractor is brought in. However, this solution is intended to provide the client with appropriate transparency and a certain degree of control, which is customary in the industry.




Interim summary

The days, a company doing everything itself, are long gone. From temporary workers to freelancers to external service providers, others support the company's own business and internal processes. Many of these supporters actively work with the company's data or at least come into contact with it. Nevertheless, "Cloud" still feels unfamiliar to some decision-makers. However, a careful selection of the Cloud provider including an appropriate examination of its services, its technical and organizational measures, and a legally compliant order processing contract, can help.






II. Data goes to the Cloud and leaves the country

Many IT service providers are based outside the EU, for example in the US. Atlassian is currently headquartered in Australia, but has additional locations in the US, Asia Pacific and Europe.

If European companies want to use the services of companies outside the EU (or the European Economic Area) and personal data is transferred ("exported") from the EU, additional legal requirements must be met.

Furthermore, there are "export rules " for personal data. These rules are designed to ensure adequate data protection when companies export data of EU citizens to a third country. The first protection is that the export must be made transparent to the individuals concerned. Depending on the destination country, it is then necessary, for example, that a data protection agreement exists, that the companies involved conclude additional contracts on data protection or that the subject of the data, explicitly consents.

It has been less than two years since the European Court of Justice declared the data protection agreement with the USA invalid. Unlike in Europe, in the US, there is no sufficient legal protection for the subjects of the data and their personal data. Under the argument of national security, state institutions can override existing rights and access data without the subjects of the data ever being aware.

Crucially for Atlassian Cloud, this is now the case: It has also been ruled that when data is exported from the EU to a non-EU country, the controller must ensure that any existing lack of data protection is compensated by appropriate additional measures. And at this point it should be stated simply and briefly: Until two years ago, it was easier to use IT service providers outside the EU while exporting data from the EU. After the decision of the European Court of Justice, it has become much more complicated. The respective EU company is responsible for legally compliant implementation and additional measures in possible insecure non-EU countries.



What do companies have to bear in mind when dealing with non-EU countries?

1. EU Commission determines adequacy

The European Commission can issue so-called ‘adequacy decisions’ for countries outside the EU. This certifies that these countries have an adequate level of data protection. If such a decision exists for a non-EU country, European companies may export data to this country.

Currently, such decisions exist for the following countries: Andorra, Argentina, Canada, Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Israel, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, New Zealand, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Switzerland, Uruguay and the United Kingdom.



2. Transfer Impact Assessment (TIA)

For all other non-EU countries, companies that want to use services in connection with personal data in these countries must first conduct an assessment of the legal and data protection situation and the effects of a data export non-EU country and the purpose of the export as well as the need for protection of the data to be exported should be considered and evaluated. Where there are high risks, additional effective protective measures must be taken. Where this is not sufficient, a waiver of this export should be put to the test.

The European Data Protection Authority (EDSA) offers a detailed guide on this topic.



3. standard contractual clauses

For all non-EU countries for which there is no adequacy decision, but for which there is an implemented TIA and, if applicable, additional data protection measures, a further contractual agreement is necessary.

The European Commission has provided contract templates in which data exporter and data importer enter into supplementary agreements on data protection. Unlike an order processing contract, these address the specific circumstances of transferring data to a non-EU country. 

The contract templates can be downloaded free of charge from the European Commission's website.



What does Atlassian offer to non-EU countries?

Atlassian enables clients to choose a so-called data residence. Here, the client can specify the geographical storage location of their data in the Atlassian Cloud. There is a choice of locations in the USA, the EU and Australia. However, this specification of a data residence is only available for certain product areas, but is to be further expanded. Atlassian maintains a roadmap for this on its website.

Atlassian does not currently offer a pure EU solution.

1. Adequacy decision of the EU Commission

Atlassian is currently a company in Australia with significant operations in the US. There is currently no European Commission adequacy decision for Australia and the US. 



2 Transfer Impact Assessment (TIA)

TIA means looking at what data is transferred to which country, for what purpose, and what risks might exist. The aim is to reduce or eliminate these risks with appropriate measures.

Certainly, such a plan of action is likely to become more challenging if a hospital wants to store its patient records in a Confluence instance in the Atlassian Cloud. However, such plans might not necessarily correspond to Atlassian's typical target group. 

Documentation and assistance for the implementation of a TIA are published on the Atlassian website. The explanation on the legal assessment of non-EU countries is particularly interesting.

In addition, Atlassian offers a regularly updated transparency report, which discloses how many requests are made to Atlassian by government institutions and what kind of data Atlassian has actually released. This enables a better assessment in the context of the risk assessment of a TIA.

The publication of such transparency reports is now standard practice among the larger Cloud providers, for example Microsoft or Amazon.



3. standard contractual clauses

Atlassian has additionally equipped its order processing contract with the required standard contractual clauses of the European Commission. Here, the specific details for the use of Atlassian products have already been made. 

The contract for order processing, including the standard data protection clauses, is enclosed in the Cloud contract and is thus agreed together with the Cloud contract. A separate closure is not necessary.




Closing words

For potential Atlassian Cloud customers who already have experience with Microsoft 365, Microsoft Azure or Amazon AWS, the step into the Atlassian Cloud should no longer be too big. It should be noted here that the previously described details on data protection must of course also be observed when using other cloud services - for example, when operating Atlassian Data Center in a non-Atlassian cloud.

Atlassian seems to be oriented towards the major cloud providers on the market and offers an extensive pool of transparency information, documentation and ready-made documents for complex data protection topics. The possibility to choose a data residence is an important - though not the only - pro-argument for German or European customers. Atlassian has taken the right path here and will soon be on the home stretch. 

In the end, it is also decisive which personal data should or must be taken into an Atlassian Cloud. Here, companies should check the protection requirements, the legal requirements and the possibilities with Atlassian together with their data protection officer. For data protection colleagues who have less experience with topics abroad, the guidance provided by the supervisory authorities and the EDSA are recommended.




Notes

1 cf. lawfulness of processing Art. 5 (1) lit a DS-GVO

2 cf. purpose limitation Art. 5 para. 1 lit. b DS-GVO

3 cf. necessity and data minimisation Art. 5 para. 1 lit. c DS-GVO

4 For the definition of terms in the law, see Art. 4 No. 7 DS-GVO

5 cf. accountability in data protection Art. 5 para. 2 DS-GVO

6 cf. commissioned processing Art. 28 DS-GVO

7 Obligation to follow instructions pursuant to Art. 28 Para. 3 lit. a DS-GVO

8 Deletion and return according to Art. 28 Para. 3 lit. g DS-GVO

9 See "Guarantees of the Processor" Art. 28 (1) of the GDPR and "Technical and Organisational Measures" Art. 28 (3) (c), (e) of the GDPR in conjunction with Art. 32 of the GDPR.

10 Art. 44 ff DS-GVO

11 cf. information on export to a third country Art. 13 para. 1 lit. f DS-GVO

Note

The information in this article is provided for information purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice. In particular, they are not intended to and cannot replace legal advice that takes into account the specifics of the individual case. Insofar as we report on cases, in particular court decisions, their results must not be used to infer a necessarily similar outcome in other cases. We endeavor to select all information provided with care and to update or supplement it as necessary. Nevertheless, we cannot guarantee that the information in this text is up-to-date, complete and correct.



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This content was last updated on 12/21/2022.

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