Trans-Atlantic data-transfer scheme struck down by European Court

A top European court has suspended the 15-year-old Safe Harbour data-sharing agreement between the Europe and the US.

The deal, which was made in 2000, allowed US firms to get data from Europe without breaking the continent’s data sharing rules.

The EU’s data protection directive says that personal data can’t be moved out of EU jurisdictions without there being adequate privacy protections in place. To get around the data protection regulations, the deal allowed those in the US to self-certify that they weren’t breaking any rules.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) said that data sharing under the agreement is “invalid”.

The ruling comes following a complaint from Austrian Max Schrems, who, correctly according to the court, claimed that following Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA mass surveillance that the agreement didn’t protect his privacy. His complaint related to his Facebook data being transferred from the company’s Irish subsidiary to servers where it is processed in the US.

In particular he stated that the law and practices of the US did not offer enough protection against surveillance of data transferred to the US. Schrems said, in a long statement posted online, that he hopes it will be a “milestone when it comes to online privacy” and that “it clarifies that mass surveillance violates our fundamental rights”

The court said that no provision of the Europe’s data laws “prevents oversight” of whether a person’s personal data is transferred to a third country.

“The Court [states] that legislation permitting the public authorities to have access on a generalized basis to the content of electronic communications must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life,” a press release detailing the judgement says.

The CJEU decision has been welcomed by transparency and anti-surveillance groups. The Open Rights Group said that Safe Harbour “is not worth the paper it’s written on” and that a new agreement “that will protect EU citizens from mass surveillance by the NSA” is needed.

Joe McNamee, the executive director of European Digital Rights, said that Safe Harbour was “flawed in principle and flawed in practice”.

While Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation stated that the decision shows that the web is a playing field that allows ordinary citizens to take on giants and international laws to improve their rights.

“Today’s Judgment puts people’s fundamental right to privacy before profit. Without effective safeguards for privacy, the Web as we know it could wither and die,” said the Web Foundation’s Renata Avila.

Avila continued to say that it is hoped the ruling will mean countries review their data protection and exchange policies. “Following today’s ruling, new safeguards must now urgently be put in place that protect the Web as it should be, a secure and private space where people can start businesses, research confidential topics or just chat with friends without the fear of being subjected to unwarranted government snooping.

However, techUK, which represents companies working with technology, said it will cause “confusion and uncertainty” for those businesses who transfer data between the two continents.

The deputy CEO of techUK, Antony Walker, said: “This is a big issue for many small businesses in particular who will be faced with time the consuming and costly task of working through the full legal implications.

“The ability to transfer data lawfully across borders is fundamental for a growing and dynamic digital economy. Businesses need stability and certainty in the legal framework that enables this to happen.”

Professor Brian Cox: Politicians funding science need to think of the future

Noted physicist Professor Brian Cox has warned that future science funding needs to be focused around what we want to achieve in 10 or 20 years time.

The English scientist, author and TV personality told a group of UK government officials reviewing the country’s science spending that there has to be consideration of what outputs there will be as well as the monetary input that’s made.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee, Cox said that current “excellent” scientific results have all come from a previous commitment to science funding.

“We’re reaping the rewards of decisions that were made decades ago,” he told the committee.

“If you’re focusing on outputs, the correct question has to be: ‘What do we invest in now in order to make sure those outputs at least stay constant and world-leading, but also, which become more valuable as time goes on?’. We’re looking at 10 or 20 year timescales.”

Cox backed this up by saying the success of the large Hadron Collider and “big space missions” are because of the decisions that were made during the 1980s.

Since 2010 the UK’s science budget has been ring-fenced as a separate budget within the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) department.

But the government’s current spending review is due to set new budgets, including the one for science, for the next two years.

As such, the committee is looking at where and how science should be funded and to what extent changes will impact upon the work undertaken by the county’s universities and researchers.

In the last spending review in 2013, government officials announced that the science community in the UK would continue to receive a ‘flat-cash’ spending until the current spending review.

Cox said that a similar fixed funding approach would be detrimental to the UK’s scientific research and could result in the country becoming a “second-class scientific nation”.

“If there’s a flat-cash settlement then realistically it’s dire, I think. That’s not my opinion, it seems to be the opinion, unanimously, of the research councils. So I would be extremely pessimistic if that is what happened,” he said.

“I spend a lot of time going to schools and talking to students and telling them that STEM, putting their energies into STEM, is the way that they can secure a better future and have a very enjoyable time at the moment.

“That’s true at the moment but it won’t be true if we become a second-class scientific nation. Where will those jobs be?”

The Science and Technology Committee is continuing to take evidence on the future of science funding and will report later this year.