Lack of legal 'safeguards' protecting EU citizens' privacy exposed

MEP inquiry looks at rebuilding trust between the EU and US following damaging spying allegations, says Claude Moraes.

By Claude Moraes

09 Jan 2014

Allegations of mass surveillance of EU citizens' communications, including emails, phone calls, and text messages, eavesdropping on EU leaders' phone calls including chancellor Merkel, and spying on EU institutions and UN headquarters, have all had an unprecedented impact on EU-US transatlantic relations and have, in the opinion of many, resulted in a loss of trust.

"It is now over six months since the initial reports on Prism and the NSA's ability to intercept and store the personal data of EU citizens surfaced"

It is now over six months since the initial reports on Prism and the NSA's ability to intercept and store the personal data of EU citizens surfaced. Since then, further allegations have been relentless, exposing the expansive capacities of the NSA and the lack of legal protections or safeguards for EU citizens' rights to privacy.

As part of the civil liberties justice and home affairs (LIBE) committee inquiry into the mass surveillance of EU citizens, MEPs travelled to Washington to discuss directly with US counterparts the allegations of indiscriminate and disproportionate operations of the NSA and the steps that needed to be taken to re-establish trust in our relations. One thing both sides had in common was that the Snowden revelations have raised areas of legitimate concern and it was now time to have an informed public debate on the issue of surveillance. It was also clear to our inquiry that we would be looking closely at the situation within the European Union, in relation to the allegations.

"From listening to high level US counterparts, it became clear that both the US constitution and legal framework makes it extremely difficult to ensure privacy for EU citizens"

From listening to high level US counterparts, it became clear that both the US constitution and legal framework makes it extremely difficult to ensure privacy for EU citizens. Despite the fact that EU customers private data is being transferred to the US through major companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, there are no sufficient safeguards in place to limit the interception of this data by US authorities nor is there any judicial redress mechanism in place to guarantee EU citizens access to justice. Such demands will have to remain within the scope of international agreements which places great importance on the ongoing negotiations between the EU and the US on a framework agreement on data protection in the field of police and judicial cooperation to instil a relationship of reci procity between both sides and ensure strong and enforceable rights for our citizens.

The European parliament has now entered into its final stages in its initial investigation into the Edward Snowden revelations. It is important to point out that the scope of the inquiry does not only centre on actions carried out by the US, but also EU member states intelligence authorities and their cooperation with the US. Our role is to protect the fundamental rights of EU citizens and it is clear that the scope of activities described is completely disproportionate in the important fight against terrorism and for security.

The European parliament has been a strong actor in this debate and has been consistent in communicating to the US that we are serious about protecting EU citizens' right to privacy. It has voted in favour of new EU data protection rules, ensuring that adequate levels of data protection are guaranteed with transatlantic transfers of EU citizens' data.

As mentioned, it voted in favour of the suspension of the EU-US terrorist finance tracking programme international agreement with the US due to serious doubts as to whether or not it had been compromised, as set out in the Snowden allegations. In addition, through the scope of the inquiry, it has expressed serious criticism on the existing safe harbour decision, asking that it be suspended and a new mechanism put in place.

For now, parliament has to keep pressure on the council to speed up its work on implementing the new data protection package and ensure that data privacy protections are achieved separately from the ongoing EU-US trade agreement. In relation to both the Swift agreement and safe harbour, it is important to remember that the majority of the European parliament wants such agreements to work securely and safely, in the interests of anti-terrorism and for good commercial relationships (safe harbour), but these agreements must be based on trust from both sides.

An informed public debate needs to take place now. The recent delegation was very constructive in building relationships, particularly with congress and civil society, and discussed hard issues such as Swift and safe harbour face to face with direct counterparts in the treasury, federal trade commission and US business community. In this sense, we contributed to an important public debate.

The European parliament inquiry into mass surveillance will report and be voted on in a 2014 plenary session in Strasbourg, a vital part of that report will be the narrative of how we are rebuilding trust on these vital issues between the EU and US.

Read the most recent articles written by Claude Moraes - Committee guide: LIBE ensures respect of fundamental rights

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