The European data protection activists behind the Europe v Facebook (evf) campaign group, that has long been a thorn in Facebook’s side in Europe, have filed new complaints under regional data protection law targeting Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo for their alleged collaboration with the NSA’s Prism data collection program.
The student activist organisation is targeting the European subsidiaries of these five U.S. companies, arguing that their corporate structure means they fall fully under European privacy laws despite being U.S. headquartered companies. And yet, being as they are U.S. companies, they are required to comply with U.S. surveillance laws — putting them in the “tricky” situation of having to comply with potentially conflicting legal requirements. It’s that legal conflict evf is now probing.
Evf takes the view that the law needs clarifying — and it using these new data protection complaints as the vehicle to obtain clarification from the various regional data protection agencies. Facebook and Apple; Microsoft and Skype; and Yahoo have subsidiaries in Ireland, Luxembourg and Germany respectively. “We want a clear statement by the authorities if a European company may simply give foreign intelligence agencies access to its customer data. If this turns out to be legal, then we might have to change the laws,” noted evf speaker, Max Schrems, in a statement.
The key question, as evf sees it, is whether “mass transfer” of personal data from to a foreign intelligence agency is legal under European law. “Many journalists have asked us in recent weeks if PRISM is legal from a EU perspective. We have looked at that a little closer. The result was – after consulting with legal experts – that it is very likely illegal under EU data protection laws, because of the corporate structure of the companies,” added Schrems.
Google and YouTube have not been included in this first round of evf complaints being as they have a different corporate structure that does not include European subsidiaries. However it notes they do have datacenters in European countries, which will give evf a route to filing Prism-related data protection complaints against both at a later date.
Writing in a press notice announcing its new action, evf added:
If a European subsidiary sends user data to the American parent company, this is considered an “export” of personal data. Under EU law, an export of data is only allowed if the European subsidiary can ensure an “adequate level or protection” in the foreign country. After the recent disclosures on the “PRISM” program such trust in an “adequate level of protection” by the involved companies can hardly be upheld.
There can in no way be an adequate level of protection if they cooperate with the NSA on the other end of the line. Right now an export of data to the US must be seen as illegal if the involved companies cannot disprove the reports on the PRISM program.
According to evf, the subsidiaries being targeted by these complaints have “the burden of proof” — to either “credibly assure” that the Prism program is a hoax, or “explain how mass access by a foreign intelligence agency interplays with EU data protection laws”.
Evf cites a 2006 case precedent involving payment processor SWIFT which had forwarded transaction details to U.S. authorities. In that case it says a group of EU data protection authorities decided that such a mass data transfer is illegal under EU law, leading to SWIFT to move European data to a server in Switzerland. The case also led to an agreement between the U.S. and the EU on the use of payment data to combat crime.