European Commission Urges U.S to Reform Surveillance Methods

The European Commission is urging the United States government to make some changes to the way it handles surveillance to help restore the trust in the relationship between the EU and the U.S. The commission is asking for the U.S. to promote privacy rights internationally, adopt the EU’s data protection reforms and respond to the commission’s problems with the U.S.’s surveillance reform process.

The European Commission is urging the United States government to make some changes to the way it handles surveillance to help restore the trust in the relationship between the EU and the U.S. The commission is asking for the U.S. to promote privacy rights internationally, adopt the EU’s data protection reforms and respond to the commission’s problems with the U.S.’s surveillance reform process.

Since the public exposures of the NSA’s widespread surveillance programs and collection methods began in June, there have been a number of pronouncements from politicians in various European countries about the privacy and economic effects the programs might have. The volume has increased in recent months after news broke that the agency, and others it is allied with, may have been conducting surveillance on European leaders’ mobile phones. But this represents one of the first public statements from a European government body on the subject.

“Large-scale US intelligence collection programmes, such as PRISM affect the fundamental rights of Europeans and, specifically, their right to privacy and to the protection of personal data. These programmes also point to a connection between Government surveillance and the processing of data by private companies, notably by US internet companies. As a result, they may therefore have an economic impact. If citizens are concerned about the large-scale processing of their personal data by private companies or by the surveillance of their data by intelligence agencies when using Internet services, this may affect their trust in the digital economy, with potential negative consequences on growth. These developments expose EU-US data flows to new challenges,” the communication from the EC says.

The communication is the result of a joint working group of U.S. and EU members that looked at ways that the two parties could restore trust in the flow of data that is vital to the economic health of both the EU and America. The group found that there are a number of thing that should be done to fix the problem:

  • A swift adoption of the EU’s data protection reform
  • Making Safe Harbour safe
  • Strengthening data protection safeguards in the law enforcement area
  • Using the existing Mutual Legal Assistance and Sectoral agreements to obtain data
  • Addressing European concerns in the on-going U.S. reform process
  •  Promoting privacy standards internationally

The working group noted that one of the main issues is that there are different standards and protections applied to U.S. citizens and Europeans, which leads to problems for EU citizens.

“There is a lower level of safeguards which apply to EU citizens, as well as a lower threshold for the collection of their personal data. In addition, whereas there are procedures regarding the targeting and minimisation of data collection for U.S. citizens, these procedures do not apply to EU citizens, even when they have no connection with terrorism, crime or any other unlawful or dangerous activity. While U.S. citizens benefit from constitutional protections (respectively, First and Fourth Amendments) these do not apply to EU citizens not residing in the U.S.,” the working group’s statement says.

The statements from the EC come a day after the EFF and other digital and human rights groups formed a new coalition to urge politicians to reform the mass surveillance programs run by the NSA. And while much has been made of the privacy and civil rights effects of the surveillance, it’s just recently that more of the attention has been focused on the economic effects of what’s been going on.

“Massive spying on our citizens, companies and leaders is unacceptable. Citizens on both sides of the Atlantic need to be reassured that their data is protected and companies need to know existing agreements are respected and enforced. Today, the European Commission is setting out actions that would help to restore trust and strengthen data protection in transatlantic relations,” said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner. “There is now a window of opportunity to rebuild trust which we expect our American partners to use, notably by working with determination towards a swift conclusion of the negotiations on an EU-U.S. data protection ‘umbrella’ agreement. Such an agreement has to give European citizens concrete and enforceable rights, notably the right to judicial redress in the U.S. whenever their personal data are being processed in the U.S.”

Image from Flickr photos of Thomas Quine

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