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Belgian Privacy Commission accuses Facebook of using NSA tactics to spy on users

Belgian Privacy Commission data protection watchdog likens Facebook's data handling processes to those of the US National Security Agency (NSA)

A European privacy watchdog has compared social networking firm Facebook to the US National Security Agency (NSA) for spying on users. 

The accusation was aired during the first day of the Belgian Privacy Commission’s (BPC) case against Facebook, which the commission accuses of ignoring European privacy laws.

BPC legal representative Frederic Debussere is reported by The Guardian to have said: “When it became known that the NSA was spying on people all around the world, everybody was upset. This actor [Facebook] is doing the very same thing, albeit in a different way.”

For example, the BPC previously accused Facebook of monitoring the web browsing activities of its users without their consent, regardless of whether or not they are logged into it.

The BPC said it hoped the lawsuit will compel Facebook to amend its privacy policies, and overhaul how the firm handles users' data.

“Don’t be intimidated by Facebook,” Debussere contined. “They will argue our demands cannot be implemented in Belgium alone. Our demands can be perfectly implemented just in this country.”

Paul Lefebvre, Facebook’s legal representative, poured scorn on this argument in court – reported by Bloomberg – arguing that Belgium’s data protection laws do not apply to the firm, as its data processing activities occur in Ireland.

“How could Facebook be subject to Belgian law if the management of data gathering is being done by Facebook Ireland and its 900 employees in that country,” Lefebvre said.

The way Facebook relies on cookies to track customer behaviour has been a central tenet of the case, but Lefebvre said the company has legitimate, security-related reasons for using them.

“They allow Facebook Ireland to identify bad faith attempts to gain access via the browser being used,” he said.

“If this would no longer be possible, Belgium would become a cradle for cyber terrorism: Just the opposite of what the privacy commission strives for.”

The case is sure to garner plenty of attention, particularly as it coincides with the European Commission’s bid to push through data protection regulations that would see all countries in the European Union (EU) abide by the same set of rules for the first time.

As it stands, each EU member state has its own data protection legislation, enforced by their own data privacy watchdogs. It is the EC’s aim to simplify this and make it easier for users to control how their data is used.

The case continues. 

Read more about Facebook and data privacy

Europe’s top court is to rule on a case that seeks to force data protection authorities to investigate allegations that Facebook passes personal data to the US National Security Agency.

Privacy groups are calling on US regulators to block Facebook's $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp until there is greater clarity about how it plans to use the personal data of WhatsApp's 450 million members.

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