Data Transfers and a Chaotic Post-Brexit Future

european unionLast week, the Irish High Court made a judgement on transatlantic data flows that could have far reaching implications for US tech firms and point the way towards economic disaster for the UK.

Yes, it might not have received much coverage at the time, but the court’s decision was a biggie.

It asked the European Union Court of Justice (CJEU) to scrutinise the mechanism by which Facebook and many other firms transfer data: standard contractual clauses (SCCs).

Why? Because Austrian law student Max Schrems is still not happy that his personal data could theoretically be snooped on by the US authorities whilst residing in Facebook datacentres over there. His previous battle with Facebook over this issue led to the collapse of the Safe Harbour agreement between the EU and US.

Its replacement, Privacy Shield, is the other main legal mechanism – aside from SCCs – that govern data transfers outside the US.

“In simple terms, US law requires Facebook to help the NSA with mass surveillance and EU law prohibits just that,” Schrems said in a written statement following the court’s decision. “As Facebook is subject to both jurisdictions, they got themselves in a legal dilemma that they cannot possibly solve in the long run.”

Emily Taylor, CEO of Oxford Innovation Labs and Chatham House associate fellow, took time out to discuss the issue with me.

“The reference to the CJEU is no surprise, and the fact that the US government applied to be joined as party shows how high the stakes are on all sides – for governments, for big data platforms like Facebook, and for individuals,” she told me.

“The case shows that the Snowden revelations continue to reverberate on both sides of the Atlantic.  The CJEU has taken a consistently hard line against mass data collection and retention, and increasingly relies on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter allows for ‘more extensive protection’ of fundamental rights such as privacy, compared with the more familiar European Convention.”

That spells some uncertain times ahead for Silicon Valley, especially with Privacy Shield also facing an uncertain future.

That’s not all though. The case tells us much about what may happen to post-Brexit Britain.

Our digital economy is worth around £160bn and responsible for over 1.5m jobs, by some estimates. That makes it a vital part of the economy, and means unhindered data transfers with the EU – our biggest trading partner and the largest trading bloc in the world – are absolutely essential.

So how do we square the EU’s requirements around strong privacy protections for citizens, with the round hole of the UK’s brand spanking new Investigatory Powers Act? Also known  as the Snoopers’ Charter, the new law has given the UK authorities probably more power than any country on earth – save for China and North Korea – to snoop on their own citizens.

“It is difficult to see how the UK’s mass data collection requirements under the Investigatory Powers Act could satisfy the EU Charter and this could have a severe impact on EU-UK data flows, potentially damaging UK business interests post-Brexit,” Taylor concluded.

That should be getting people in all sorts of high places very nervous indeed.

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