February 2, 2024

Is Google Analytics GDPR Compliant? Ensuring Google Analytics GDPR Compliance for Google Analytics 4 (GA4) [Updated February 2024]

Navigate GA4, data collection, and legal changes for GDPR compliance in 2024. Explore web analytics, GA4 vs. Universal Analytics, and stay updated on Privacy Shield 2.0. Learn to seamlessly integrate Google Consent Mode with Secure Privacy for privacy-focused analytics. Ensure your data practices align with GDPR and CCPA regulations.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has reshaped the online landscape, forcing businesses to rethink how they collect and manage user data. Google Analytics, a cornerstone of website analytics, hasn't escaped the spotlight. But with the new Google Analytics 4 (GA4) emerging, the question looms: Is Google Analytics GDPR compliant in 2024, especially GA4?

This isn't a simple yes or no answer. Navigating the GDPR's maze of regulations and technical nuances requires understanding the evolving legal landscape, GA4's specific features, and crucial steps to ensure compliance. Buckle up, because this blog post dives deep into the complex world of Google Analytics and GDPR in 2024, equipping you with the knowledge and resources to confidently use analytics while respecting user privacy.

What is Web Analytics?

It is important for website owners to know things like how long users spend on their sites, which content is most popular, where those users are located, and so on. This data is useful because it provides website and app owners with the information they need to make informed choices about the services and products they provide. Web analytics is the process of collecting and analyzing data about how users engage with a website.

Web analytics is used primarily to learn about how site visitors interact with a given website. If you want to increase sales, attract more customers, and fine-tune your website's content to what your visitors find most engaging, you need to have a firm grasp on how they interact with it. Web analytics can tell you things like which countries or regions provide the majority of your site's visitors, for instance. If so, you may want to increase production and distribution of goods and services with a regional or national focus. Or, if you discover that some of your products or services are not popular with your audience, you will need to analyze why they are not successful and make adjustments accordingly.

Website analytics is technically possible because of cookies and other tracking tools. These tracking tools are coded into websites and record information about site visitors. This information is sent to the web analytics service provider's servers, where it is processed and analyzed before being forwarded on to the website owner. Site owners are provided with aggregated and organized data that can be used to better understand their enterprise.

What is Google Analytics? 

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is a free web analytics service offered by Google that gives you the tools to better understand your website users. For GA4 to function, a small amount of Javascript code must be added to each website. This code is triggered whenever a new user accesses the site, and it sends information about each user to Google's servers. You can set up Google Analytics 4 to generate reports that include metrics like total users, average session length, page views per session, and more. Site owners can use this data to learn more about their audience and tailor their services to them.

Read about the top GDPR-compliant analytics tools.

What is the difference between Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics?

Google Analytics 4 is the latest version of Google Analytics, and it is designed to be more user-friendly and comprehensive than Universal Analytics (UA). GA4 also uses a new data model that is more flexible and adaptable to the changing landscape of digital marketing.

Here are some of the key differences between GA4 and UA:

  • Data model: GA4 uses a new event-based data model, which means that all data is collected as events. This makes it easier to track user interactions across different devices and platforms. UA, on the other hand, uses a hit-based data model, which means that data is collected as individual hits.
  • Reporting: GA4 offers a new set of reports that are more user-friendly and customizable. UA, on the other hand, has a more traditional set of reports that can be more difficult to use and customize.
  • Integrations: GA4 is more tightly integrated with other Google products, such as Google Marketing Platform and Google Ads. This makes it easier to use data from GA4 to improve your marketing campaigns. UA is also integrated with other Google products, but the integrations are not as tight.
  • Machine learning: GA4 uses machine learning to provide insights into your data. For example, GA4 can identify trends in your data and predict future outcomes. UA does not use machine learning.

Overall, GA4 is a more powerful and user-friendly platform than UA. It is also more adaptable to the changing landscape of digital marketing. If you are using UA, it is recommended that you start using GA4 as soon as possible. You'll be able to see your Universal Analytics reports for a period of time after July 1, 2023. However, new data will only flow into Google Analytics 4 properties.

Which categories of data does Google Analytics collect?

Simply by adding some code to your site, you can start using Google Analytics 4. All visitors to your site can be tracked individually with the help of this code. According to the Google Ads Data Protection Terms: Service Information, it gathers the following data:

  • Online identifiers, including cookie identifiers
  • Internet protocol addresses and device identifiers
  • Clients identifiers

In its privacy policy, Google also explains what data they collect and how they do it. They collect the following:

  1. Information that you create or provide to them. This includes the information you provide to them by using their services, such as name, email address, phone number, and content that you create or upload while using Google services.
  2. Information about your use of their services. This includes three types of information: your apps, browsers & devices, your activity, and your location information.

Is Google Analytics GDPR compliant?

Google Analytics is neutral. It doesn't inherently comply or fail to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation. It is up to you to use in compliance with the data privacy laws or against them.

Google Analytics offers a web analytics tool to track website visitor interactions on your website, providing valuable usage pattern insights. However, it does that by processing personally identifiable information (PII), which means that GDPR has a say.

GA4 can be used in combination with other Google products, such as Google Ads advertising and remarketing tools. They use the GA data to learn what the website visitor has seen on the website or app, and then serve them with ads related to such content.

GA4 comes with a few privacy features that make it more privacy-friendly than the previous ones. Some of the features include allowing websites owners to:

  • Employ IP anonymization
  • Restrict data collection on specific web pages
  • Set shorter data retention periods
  • Erase data in response to data deletion requests

Can GA4 be used freely without obtaining user consent?

The quick answer is no.

Google processing terms clearly state that the GA services collect data such as “online identifiers, including cookie identifiers, internet protocol addresses, and device identifiers; client identifiers”. That’s personal data under the GDPR and is protected by the law.

Any processing of personal data from individuals inside the European Union requires their explicit consent to do so. This includes the use of Google Analytics, cookies and other tracking technologies on your website.

Before delving into what you can do to use GA4 cookies in compliance with the GDPR, it is important to understand Google’s data transfers from Europe to the United States.

GA processes personal data on your behalf. Google transfers that data from Europe to the US to process it. Even though they have a registered entity in Ireland, they are still subject to US law, including the FISA 702 and the CLOUD Act. 

These laws oblige Google to hand the US enforcement bodies any data they control or process. That also includes your GA data.

To give you an idea how it may look like: imagine that you run an ecommerce store selling shirts. A user browses your website. The US authorities track that person because they may be involved in criminal activities. They request the data from Google and they must give it to them. Your website visitor has no easy access to US courts for redress, therefore until recently, the European Union deemed the United States to be an unsafe country for data transfers.

GDPR-compliant Google Analytics data transfers between the EU and the US

Transferring personal data from the EU to the US for analytics purposes has been a complex and constantly evolving landscape, marked by legal challenges and shifting regulations. While Google Analytics is a powerful tool for website owners, concerns regarding GDPR compliance and data privacy remain at the forefront. The GDPR imposes strict limitations on transferring personal data outside the EU, including to the US. This stems from the potential for differing data protection standards and the ability of US authorities to access EU citizen data under surveillance laws like FISA.

Google Analytics, being a US-based service, stores and processes EU user data on US servers. This transfer of personal data, even anonymized or pseudonymized, triggers GDPR compliance requirements.

Privacy Shield and Schrems II

In July 2016, the EU-US Privacy Shield framework is launched, allowing personal data transfers from the EU to US companies certified under the program. This aimed to replace the Safe Harbor agreement, which was invalidated by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in 2015. This framework facilitated data transfers between the EU and US companies certified under the program.

However, the framework was invalidated by the Schrems II ruling in July 2020, leaving businesses scrambling for alternative legal bases for data transfers, because the US did not provide adequate protection for data.

Because of the Schrems II ruling, data protection authorities across the EU ruled against the use of Google Analytics, as it was deemed non-compliant with GDPR:

  • European Parliament: The European Parliament's COVID testing site attracted scrutiny for using Google Analytics. The the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) investigation revealed several GDPR violations. Being one of the first post-Schrems II rulings, it established a stricter standard for data transfers involving US companies. The European Parliament's case serves as a cautionary tale.
  • Austria: In January 2022, the Austrian Data Protection Authority (DSB) delivered a landmark decision, declaring Google Analytics in violation of the Schrems II ruling. While Google attempted to anonymize IP addresses, the DSB deemed this effort inadequate. The DSB also found encryption to be insufficient due to the legal landscape in the US. US authorities possess the power to compel access to encryption keys, potentially compromising the very purpose of encryption and exposing user data. This ruling emphasized the need for implementing methods that effectively protect user anonymity, and exploring alternative encryption methods or leveraging additional safeguards to mitigate the risk of data access by US authorities.
  • Denmark: In September 2022, the Danish Data Protection Authority (Datatilsynet) issued a stern warning: using Google Analytics without additional safeguards violates GDPR regulations. The statement went a step further, advising companies unable to implement these additional measures to stop using Google Analytics altogether.
  • France: In February 2022, the French data protection authority, CNIL, delivered a blow to Google Analytics. They ruled that its use violated Article 44 of the GDPR, citing insufficient data protection in the US where Google stores user data. Following their initial ruling, the CNIL released updated guidance in June 2022, outlining specific concerns and potential solutions. 
  • Italy: In June 2022, the Italian data protection authority, Garante, delivered a resounding verdict: transferring data to the US via Google Analytics violates the GDPR. While Google anonymized IP addresses, Garante declared even shortened versions personal data due to their potential for re-identification. Garante also deemed Google's data protections inadequate, particularly concerning potential access by US authorities due to surveillance laws.
  • Norway: In January 2022, the Norwegian Data Protection Authority (Datatilsynet) made a clear statement: they aligned with the Austrian ruling against Google Analytics and publicly advised Norwegian companies to seek alternative solutions.
  • Sweden: In July 2023, the Swedish Integritetsskyddsmyndigheten (IMY), also known as the Swedish Data Protection Authority, delivered a landmark decision. They ordered four companies to immediately cease using Google Analytics, citing insufficient security measures for protecting user data. The IMY found that the companies in question lacked sufficient safeguards to mitigate these risks. While the ban directly impacted four specific companies, the IMY explicitly stated that this decision serves as guidance for all organizations using Google Analytics in Sweden.
  • The Netherlands: The January 2022 announcement by the Dutch data protection authority (AP) regarding investigations into Google Analytics echoes the growing concerns surrounding data transfers to the US. The Dutch investigations mirror issues identified in previous rulings, including concerns regarding the lack of adequate data protection safeguards in the US due to surveillance laws like FISA.
  • United Kingdom: While Brexit carved out a separate data protection path for the UK, concerns about Google Analytics and cross-border data transfers mirror those across the EU. This is further highlighted by the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) removing Google Analytics from its website in January 2022, following the landmark Austrian ruling that deemed the tool non-compliant with GDPR.

It is important to note that Google Analytics was not illegal, but its transfers were. And the new adequacy decision changed it all and made Google Analytics good to use overnight. However, using GA services means that you collect and process personal data.

It's important to underscore the following points:

  • Google Analytics 4 and Universal Analytics can hide IP addresses, which reduces the amount of personal data being processed.
  • However, Google uses more than just IP addresses to track website traffic. It also uses other types of personal data like online identifiers and device identifiers to create a user ID. This means even if you hide IP addresses, Google Analytics 4 is still handling personal data. So, if you're in Europe, you need to show a cookie banner to get user consent for analytics.
  • Google hasn't said anything about transferring data to the United States.

Privacy Shield 2.0: New "Adequacy Decision"

Privacy Shield 2.0, often referred to as the EU-US Data Privacy Framework, is a package of measures agreed upon by the European Commission and the US Department of Commerce in July 2023.  This decision allows for data transfers based on Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) with additional safeguards. While the adequacy decision removes a major hurdle, compliance remains complex. Organizations must implement the new SCCs, conduct data protection impact assessments (DPIAs), and ensure appropriate technical and organizational measures are in place to protect EU citizen data. 

Simply put, this means that the US became an adequate country and now you are free to transfer data to the US for processing purposes. It is no longer illegal.

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How to make Google Analytics GDPR-compliant

To ensure that you use Google Analytics 4 in compliance with the GDPR, you need to ensure GDPR compliance in all stages of handling data, including:

  • Data collection
  • Data transfers
  • Data sharing
  • Data retention

Let’s take it one by one.

GDPR-compliant Google Analytics data collection

Google Analytics 4 cookies require explicit consent before using them. You must ask your users if they agree for you to use the cookies.

Moreover, the consent must be:

  • Informed. It means that you must inform users about the cookies and third parties you share the data with within your privacy policy.
  • Specific for the website analytics purpose. One general consent for the use of cookies doesn’t mean that you have consent for the use of analytical cookies. Once you have the latter, you can use any analytics cookies included in your privacy policy or cookie policy.
  • Unambiguous. The data subject must take affirmative action to give consent. Assuming they are fine with cookies if they browse the website is illegal.
  • Freely given. You must not condition access to the website by giving consent, bundle the consent with Terms of Service, and so on. The user shall be free to choose whether to give cookie consent.

Moreover, when it comes to GA4 cookies, it may be necessary to obtain consent for the data transfer to the United States as well.

We have a comprehensive guide on how to obtain GDPR consent.

Google also offers to use GA in consent mode, but that doesn’t help a lot in terms of GDPR compliance, so we won’t pay much attention to it.

GDPR-compliant Google Analytics data sharing

Google allows you to easily share GA data with other products, such as Google Tag Manager, where you can repurpose the data for advertising and remarketing.

If you want to use it for marketing purposes, all you need to do is obtain explicit user consent for processing personal data for marketing purposes.

Then you can keep tracking user behavior on your website and serve relevant ads to users according to such data.

GDPR-compliant Google Analytics data retention

Data retention is one of the basic principles of the GDPR. It requires you to store the data only as long as it is needed for your purposes, and then delete it.

Website owners are free to choose the retention periods depending on their purpose. Some data protection authorities recommend reconfirming GA consent in 6 months, but you are not bound by that recommendation. The GDPR allows you to determine the data retention periods on a case-by-case basis.

How to use a GDPR-compliant website analytics platform

Google Analytics 4-powered powered websites use cookies that process individual user data. That requires obtaining consent, limiting the processing to analytics purposes, and limiting the data retention periods.

In the previous few paragraphs, you learned how you can use GA4 and remain compliant with the GDPR.

If you feel that it is too much work and you could get the same metrics in other ways, read our article on GDPR-Compliance Google Analytics 4 alternatives. These come with better privacy controls and make compliance effortless. Moreover, they do not require obtaining consent.

Google Analytics GDPR compliance: cookie consent banner

The Secure Privacy consent banner solution can help you comply with the GDPR requirements for Google Analytics 4 and keep you safe from penalties. It will obtain consent, store it safely, and allow you to track your users’ behavior cross-device.

Google Consent Mode and Google Analytics in 2024

Balancing the power of Google Analytics with the privacy rights of your users is tricky, especially in the wake of the GDPR and Schrems II rulings. That's where Google Consent Mode comes in. This tool helps you comply with data privacy regulations like the GDPR by dynamically adjusting how Google Analytics collects and processes user data based on their individual consent choices.

Think of Google Consent Mode as a translator for user consent. It sits between your website and Google tags, interpreting the consent signals users provide (think: cookie banners) and adapting tag behavior accordingly. This means respecting users' choices for data collection and ensuring compliance with regulations like the GDPR.

Traditionally, Google Analytics relied on cookies for tracking website activity. However, with stricter privacy regulations, cookies alone are no longer enough. Google Consent Mode allows Analytics to adapt to different consent scenarios. For instance, if a user opts out of cookies, the mode can collect anonymized data or not collect any data at all, depending on your configuration.

How Secure Privacy can help you

Ready to unlock the power of Google Analytics while respecting user privacy? Google Consent Mode is here, but its complexities can leave you feeling lost. That's where Secure Privacy CMP, now officially Google certified, steps in.

Our powerful Consent Management Platform simplifies user consent and seamlessly integrates with Google Consent Mode, ensuring your analytics stay compliant and privacy-focused.

  • Simplified Consent Management: User-friendly interface makes collecting and managing consent a breeze.
  • Google Consent Mode Integration: Ensures your analytics tags adapt automatically to user consent choices.
  • Granular Control: Offer users precise control over what data they share, building trust and transparency.
  • GDPR & CCPA Compliance: Rest easy knowing your practices meet the strictest data privacy regulations.

Schedule a call with Secure Privacy today!

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