Ireland’s High Court ordered an investigation into Facebook’s transfer of European Union users’ data to the United States to make sure personal privacy was properly protected from US government surveillance.
The court told the Irish Data Protection Commissioner to launch a probe following a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) two weeks ago which struck down the Safe Harbour agreement that had allowed the free transfer of data between the European Union and the United States.
Both the ECJ decision and this week's ruling were the result of a challenge by Austrian law student Max Schrems, lodged after revelations in 2013 of the US government’s Prism program, which allowed authorities to harvest private information directly from big tech firms such as Facebook and Google.
The initial challenge was made in Ireland because Facebook has its European headquarters in Dublin and is regulated by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. The ruling overturns the commissioner’s initial refusal to investigate on the grounds that it did not have jurisdiction over Safe Harbour.
“Max Schrems wants the court to order the Irish Data Protection Commissioner to audit Facebook to see what material it passes on to the US authorities. The privacy watchdog had previously said the transfers were protected under the Safe Harbour trade agreement. But a fortnight ago the European Court of Justice ruled the pact invalid,” according to a BBC online report.
The data commissioner’s office said in a statement it would now “proceed to investigate the substance of the complaint with all due diligence.”
Facebook said in a statement it had never been part of a program to give the US government direct access to its servers and said it would respond to enquiries by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner.
The ECJ ruling has thousands of US and European companies mired in legal uncertainty over the transfer of personal data from Europe to the United States. That includes payroll and human resources information as well as data used for online advertising, which is of particular importance to tech firms.