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Student group files complaint against U.S. firms over NSA data snooping

Citing violations of European data protection laws, the group has taken legal action against Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, and Yahoo.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

A student group has charged several U.S. technology companies with violations of European law for allegedly cooperating with the NSA to collect data on private citizens.

Known as Europe-v-Facebook (EVF), the group of Austrian students announced Wednesday that it filed formal complaints with the EU against Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, and Yahoo. The group contends that since the five companies do business in Europe through subsidiaries, they fall under European privacy laws.

Such laws allow the export of data only if the company's European subsidiary can guarantee an "adequate level or protection" in the home country. Following the revelations of the National Security Agency's PRISM program, the group believes that the "adequate level of protection" requirement was violated.

"There can in no way be an adequate level of protection if they cooperate with the NSA on the other end of the line," EVF speaker Max Schrems said in a statement. "Right now an export of data to the U.S. must be seen as illegal if the involved companies cannot disprove the reports on the PRISM program."

Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, Skype, and other U.S. technology firms have acknowledged receiving requests by the government for user data. But the companies have refuted reports that the government has direct access to their servers.

The complaints by the EVF are actually directed at the European subsidiaries of the five companies. The ones against Facebook and Apple were filed in Ireland, the ones against Microsoft and Skype in Luxembourg, and the one against Yahoo in Germany.

To back up its charges, the group cited a 2006 case known as "Swift," in which EU data protection officials ruled that a mass transfer of data to the U.S. is illegal under European law. The finding specifically emphasized that "that even in the fight against terrorism and crime fundamental rights must remain guaranteed."

The EVF also is looking to lodge complaints against Google and YouTube. Neither company works directly through a European intermediate, making the legal situation a bit trickier. But the group believes it can still take action against Google since the search giant hosts data centers in Ireland, Belgium, and Finland.