Thursday 22 March 2018

How Austrian law student opened up a can of worms

Data protection
Data protection
Edward Snowden

John Mulligan and Donal O'Donovan

If it hadn't been for one of Facebook's own lawyers, Max Schrems might never have been the privacy champion he is now.

While studying for a semester at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley in 2011, the Austrian law student's class was visited by a Facebook privacy lawyer.

Mr Schrems, then just 23, was surprised at how little the lawyer knew about Europe's data protection laws, and the fact that he believed they were next to irrelevant. So the Austrian decided to do his thesis on just how little Facebook understood those laws in Europe. And he promptly opened a can of worms.

The student claimed that Facebook supports the Prism surveillance programme - the American secret service's global system for monitoring and "mining" data.

The existence of Prism and US authorities' ready access to ostensibly private infomation held by American businesses, was among the most explosive revelations of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor turned whistle-blower two years ago.

Mr Schrems was born in Salzburg in 1987 and became interested in privacy issues at a young age. He reportedly went to Florida aged 17 as a foreign exchange student, and was uncomfortable with surveillance cameras in the classrooms there.

And from that has stemmed one of the biggest privacy rulings ever.

Mr Schrems is still studying in Vienna. His case at the High Court in Dublin has been financed through crowd-sourcing, the internet version of passing around a hat - in this case a big one. In Austria, a separate action against Facebook has been funded by a specialist financier, which will bear the costs if Mr Schrems loses and will take 20pc of the damages if he wins.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business