Publishing someone’s handwritten signature in social media without their explicit consent constitutes unlawful use of personal data and is subject to sanctions.
This is the main practical conclusion reached in a decision by the Bulgarian Commission for Personal Data Protection from 05.08.2020 and affirmed by the Administrative Court, Sofia City, upon appeal. The facts of the case at hand concern the publishing of a letter whose author is a public figure identified by names, capacity, а photo and а signature in the letter. The handwritten signature is not erased or concealed by the data controller who is a social media.
On the merits, both the Commission and the Administrative Court apply the so called proportionality test regularly used in the case law of the ECtHR and CJEU and strike a fair balance between concurring interests, namely the right to freedom of expression and the right to private life. As a result, both jurisdictions conclude that:
• the handwritten signature undoubtedly represents personal data within the meaning of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR);
• publishing a handwritten signature is data processing, particularly dissemination;
• the principle of data minimization under GDPR is infringed;
• publishing the signature online is not proportionate to the aim pursued, namely for journalistic purposes pursuant to Art. 25z of the Personal Data Protection Act, and to the purpose for data processing.
Consequently, the Administrative Court states that, “A person’s handwritten signature represents personal data this person can be identified by when the signature is placed under the person’s name and capacity. Freedom of expression and the right to information can be fully guaranteed by making available solely the person’s name and capacity. Publishing a person’s handwritten signature constitutes a disproportionate interference with their right to private life, which goes beyond the purpose for data processing.” (Judgement No. 6875/02.12.2020, Administrative Court, Sofia City)
It should be born in mind that striking a fair balance between conflicting rights is done on a case by case basis.
What is valuable for the regular person and consumer, whose handwritten signature might appear in social media, to know when it comes to the enjoyment of both the right to freedom of expression and the right to private life, is that they have a higher threshold of protection than public figures (for example, people in official capacities). However, what could be easily done by everybody is to refrain from publishing documents online that contain someone else’s handwritten signature without it being erased or concealed first and without its author’s explicit consent.
Upon omission to erase or conceal the signature and in case its author notifies the data controller like a platform, media, web page, etc., timely concealing the handwritten signature is the better solution.
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