How a Few Thoughtless Words about Privacy Led to Huge Political and Economic Headaches for the US and EU

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One of the most surprising developments in recent years is how privacy – something that by definition is about small, intimate things – has become a major global force in the spheres of economics and politics. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of that transformation involves data flows across the Atlantic, and the Austrian lawyer and activist Max Schrems.

As the New York Times reported in 2015, Schrems was a 24-year-old student studying at the Santa Clara School of Law in California, when lawyers from Silicon Valley came to talk to students about their companies’ approach to privacy. Schrems was “taken aback” when he heard them say that they didn’t take Europe’s privacy laws very seriously, since companies rarely faced any significant penalties for breaking them.

What was probably just an off-the-cuff remark by a lawyer touched Schrems, an Austrian national, personally. It spurred him to investigate how Facebook dealt with EU data protection laws. In particular, Schrems asked to see all the data the company had collected from him, as he was entitled to do under EU privacy laws. He was surprised to see that Facebook had retained information that he had deleted, including highly personal matters. Schrems filed various complaints with the Irish Data Protection Commission, which regulates Facebook in the EU because Facebook’s European headquarters are located in Ireland.

The revelation by Edward Snowden in 2013 that the US National Security Agency could access the personal data of EU citizens, thanks to the Prism program, led to another privacy

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