Charities should be cautious in encouraging their beneficiaries and supporters to use US-based internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and SurveyMonkey if they want to prevent US intelligence agencies gaining access to their personal data, lawyers have warned.
Lawrie Simanowitz, a partner at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, told Third Sector that charities and environmental campaign groups should be concerned by claims made in an ongoing case that is being considered in the European Court of Justice, dubbed the Facebook data privacy case.
The privacy campaigner Maximilian Schrems, who brought the case, is arguing that the Safe Harbour framework – a system that allows US companies to deal with the personal data of EU citizens in a way that satisfies EU data-processing law – cannot ensure the privacy of EU citizens’ data when it is sent to the US by firms such as Facebook.
In a hearing last month, the European Commission warned EU citizens that they should close their Facebook accounts if they wanted to keep information private from US security services.
Simanovitz said that BWB’s advice to charities would be to tell their beneficiaries and supporters to either not use Facebook or carefully consider the risk that their data may be accessed by US crime agencies.
"This is going to be a big problem for charities," he said. "You never know whether the US authorities are going to turn round and want to pry a bit more. It depends whether you’re doing anything that you might not want in the hands of the US authorities. Innocent little youth groups probably aren’t going to care, but some charities and supporter networks will."
Benjamin James, a partner at the legal firm McCarthy Denning, said he had not advised any charity to encourage its stakeholders to stop using Facebook but he had suggested they use it carefully.
"We do place disclaimers on pages and on social media sign-ups to protect the charity and the beneficiaries as far as possible, and we advise people not to place personal details on Facebook."
James Castro-Edwards, partner at the law firm Wedlake Bell, offered similar advice and said that charity advice staff and supporters should consider the potential consequences of any material they post.
Paul Whitaker, a partner at the law firm Moore Blatch, said that data could be used by search engines, advertisers or foreign intelligence services for purposes for which users had not given consent.
But he said it would be a step too far to recommend people to stop using Facebook while the Safe Harbour framework remained the accepted framework for data transfers to the US.
The ECJ is due to announce its decision on the framework by 24 June.