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Student group gets nod for Irish Prism challenge

VIENNA/DUBLIN (Reuters) - An Austrian student group fighting for online privacy in Europe got the go-ahead for a legal challenge in Ireland's High Court over the transfer of personal data to a U.S. spy agency.

The group, europe-v-facebook, had demanded an investigation into allegations that companies including Apple and Facebook help the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) harvest email and other private data from European citizens.

Fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in June revealed that the NSA used Web companies including Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft to gather user data as part of a mass electronic surveillance program known as Prism.

Snowden's leaks provoked widespread outrage among both friends and foes of the United States.

The Irish data watchdog - the effective supervisor of the EU activities of some of the biggest U.S. Internet companies, which have their European headquarters in Ireland - had said in July there were no grounds for such an investigation.

But the Irish High Court this week granted an application for judicial review of the decision by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC), meaning the case will go to trial unless the watchdog investigates.

Law student Max Schrems, founder of europe-v-facebook, said in a statement on Thursday: "The DPC (Data Protection Commissioner) simply wanted to get this hot potato off his table instead of doing his job."

"But when it comes to the fundamental rights of millions of users and the biggest surveillance scandal in years, he will have to take responsibility and do something about it."

A spokeswoman for the ODPC said in a statement: "As the matter you refer to is the subject of court proceedings, this Office is not in a position to comment on the matter, other than confirming that we will be vigorously defending our position."

(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan in Vienna and Sarah O'Connor in Dublin, editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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