July 21, 2023

The GDPR Compliance of Google Analytics 4: What You Need to Know

Discover the implications of using Google Analytics 4 in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and learn how to navigate the challenges. Explore the features of GA4, understand data transfers to the US, ensure proper data collection, transfers, sharing, and retention. Find alternatives and explore a GDPR-compliant cookie consent banner solution.

Google Analytics 4 is the successor of Universal Analytics which Google announced as a privacy-friendly opportunity to track user data on your website.

Businesses that need to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union wonder if they can finally use the robust tracking tool with peace of mind.

This article will explain that in depth.

The short answer is that as long as the EU-US Data Privacy Framework is in place, you can use Google Analytics cookies with users’ consent. You’ll learn:

  • Is Google Analytics 4 GDPR-compliant?
  • How to use GA4 in compliance with GDPR
  • How to use a GDPR-Compliant Website Analytics Platform
  • How to manage GDPR compliance requirements for GA4

Is Google Analytics 4 GDPR-Compliant?

Google Analytics is neutral. It doesn't inherently comply or fail to comply with the GDPR. 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, the most recent version of Google Analytics, 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

Does it mean that you can use GA4 freely without obtaining user consent? The answer is negative.

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.

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.

With the recent passing of the adequacy decision for EU-US data transfers, 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.

n recent months, the Austrian data protection authority, the French CNIL, and a few others have fined businesses for transferring personal data to the US via Google Analytics. According to the decisions, the transfers were unlawful.

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.

Lastly, it's your job to make sure that how you use Google Analytics follows the GDPR rules.

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 Transfers to the US

Once you have consent, Google needs to transfer the personal data to the Google Analytics servers in the United States to conduct the processing. That’s where the new adequacy decision comes in handy. These transfers use to be illegal, and now they are legal.

These transfers are no longer an issue, so we go to the next step.

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.

GDPR-Compliant Cookie Consent Banner for Google Analytics 4

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.

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