The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is to investigate Edward Snowden's claims that Facebook had passed on its EU users' data to the US National Security Agency (NSA) as part of the latter's mass surveillance programme Prism.
The case had been brought to the High Court in Dublin by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems, who had said that the Data Protection Commissioner, Billy Hawkes, would not investigate Snowden's claims. The High Court judge didn't make a decision, and instead adjourned the case, leaving the decision to the top European court.
Schrems, who is a postgraduate law student behind a "Europe v Facebook" campaign, had asked the High Court judge Mr Justice Gerard Hogan to dismiss the initial decision and refer it back to Hawkes.
Hawkes had found that Facebook had acted within the terms of Safe Harbor, an EU-US data sharing agreement dating back to July 2000, which enables US companies to transfer personal data from the EU to the US in a manner that meets EU data protection requirements. He quelled suggestions that he would not take on big companies, stating that he is investigating 22 other complaints from Schrems.
Schrems suggested that the validity of Safe Harbor remained but questioned whether it should operate differently. He said that the transfer of data to the NSA was not in accordance with any exceptions under the agreement – allowing the NSA to use the data for mass surveillance purposes without probable cause.
The High Court judge said that evidence suggested that personal data was routinely accessed on a "mass and undifferentiated basis" by the US security authorities, the Guardian reports.
"For such interception of communications to be constitutionally valid, it would, accordingly, be necessary to demonstrate that this interception and surveillance of individuals or groups of individuals was objectively justified in the interests of the suppression of crime and national security and, further, that any such interception was attended by the appropriate and verifiable safeguards," Judge Hogan said.
The High Court judge said he would refer to the ECJ because "much has happened" since the Safe Harbor agreement was put in place.
He wants the ECJ to investigate whether Ireland's Data Protection Commission is bound by Safe Harbor.
In addition, the judge wants the European court to rule on whether an investigation can be launched in Ireland based on leaked documents from Snowden that suggest that internet data and communications have been intercepted by the NSA across the world.