EUROPE’S top court has been advised to rule that US spy chiefs can be banned from accessing online data on citizens.
In a significant move for internet privacy campaigners, a lawyer for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said an EU-US agreement on the transfer of huge data banks does not stop watchdogs from suspending the movement of information.
Yves Bot, advocate general in the Luxembourg-based court, also said the deal should not prevent investigations of complaints against web giants.
The assessment was released after a long-running challenge by Austrian campaigner Max Schrems over Facebook’s use of his personal data and its transfer to American intelligence agencies. He said the ruling could have major implications for EU-US data flows and US internet firms operating in Europe.
“After an initial review of the advocate general’s opinion of more than 40 pages it seems like years of work could pay off,” he said. “Now we just have to hope that the judges of the Court of Justice will follow the advocate general’s opinion in principle.
Mr Schrems said that while his case was specific to Facebook it may also apply to other tech giants such as Apple, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.
His legal battle was sparked by revelations over the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s Prism surveillance system which was exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It allowed spies to wade through billions of bits of personal data, communication and information held by nine internet giants. Mr Bot’s opinion, although not binding, is normally accepted in later rulings by the judges of the ECJ. He branded the US spying as “mass, indiscriminate surveillance”.
He said data transfers are an important and necessary element of the transatlantic relationship between the US and Europe. But he warned that the European rules which govern it are invalid.
Mr Bot said the access US spies have to European data interferes with the right to respect for private life and protection of personal data. He said Europeans have no effective judicial protection while the large-scale data transfers are happening.
Mr Bot found: “The access of the United States intelligence services to the data transferred covers, in a comprehensive manner, all persons using electronic communications services, without any requirement that the persons concerned represent a threat to national security.
“Such mass, indiscriminate surveillance is inherently disproportionate and constitutes an unwarranted interference with the rights guaranteed by Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter (of Fundamental Rights of the European Union).”