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Germany

Interior Minister: 'Too much secret-mongering'

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has come out in favor of more data protection for European citizens. In an interview with DW he urged greater transparency from the United States.

DW: What should the European response to spying and data tapping by security agencies be? How can Europe improve data protection?

Hans-Peter Friedrich: On the one hand, the clear answer and I believe also a message to the United States should be: We want to protect our citizens' self-determination for their data! The most important element of this is transparency.

What happens to the data that I surrender to someone in public, in private or for financial purposes? Which legal measures can I use to create a framework to keep this safe? First of all through the Data Protection Directive, that is, with laws that should apply to all of Europe, in particular to corporations and also to the large American telecommunication companies. Here we demand that when companies hand over data from European or German citizens to American agencies, they also be required to inform about and report this. I believe this to be a mandatory part of transparency.

Secondly, we want to develop a common understanding about data security in conjunction with our American friends - who are also seeking a free-trade agreement and want to move even closer together economically. For this reason, we'll have to re-sharpen the so-called Safe Harbor Treaty recognized by the US government, which governs standards for businesses.

And, I believe, we need a kind of "charter of basic rights" on privacy protection and data sovereignty in order to develop a common understanding with the Americans. We really need to proceed quite quickly in these three areas.

But aren't the companies - mostly large American corporations - caught in the middle? On the one side, the American agencies are saying, "give us your data," while on the other side the Europeans are saying, "you have to inform us of what you do." Isn't that a difficult situation?

Yes, that is a difficult situation, and that's exactly what's happening at the moment. Yahoo is bringing legal action against the American government and saying, "We have to be able to justify and defend ourselves in Europe, yet you tell us that we can't say anything. We can't live with such a situation - it's hurting our business." Massive pressure is building on the American government. One could in some form or another expect a realignment of American legislation, also with the help of the courts.

Not only the American security agencies are affected, European agencies have also apparently tapped the data. Does the European initiative also target our own agencies to some extent?

It's important to me that people understand how virtually every country has its own security agency and that every country is required to assure the security of its citizens. International terrorism can only be hindered by international cooperation between security agencies, so we need to work together closely and trustingly, this goes without question.

But one thing is clear: Every security agency must function on the basis of laws passed by democratic parliaments. This must be guaranteed. Most states do this through oversight commissions, through institutions corresponding to the different realms.

But also a part of this, naturally, is disclosure of the legal foundation that they're working off of. For me with the Americans, there's too much secret-mongering on this. I believe it's appropriate for a democratic state to disclose the processes and principles under which the security agencies operate. And this doesn't have to involve revealing operative secrets. I really believe that we need to come to this now.

Many European citizens are concerned. Do you believe that the issue will be negotiated quickly enough for them to receive improved data protection before the European Parliament elections in May 2014?

Absolutely! We're in the process of expediting the Data Protection Directive. It is of course a very, very complex thing that touches upon many parts of citizens' lives. It must be done very carefully, as this law has direct effect - meaning that the European regulations would immediately replace national law. So it must be very meticulous, and yet manageable for the courts. But I do believe that we're moving along well, and will be able to bring results to the table by 2014.

Hans-Peter Friedrich has been Germany's interior minister since March 2011. Before this, the conservative politician led the Bavarian regional committee of the Christian Social Union, Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Merkel's conservatives. Last week he traveled to the United States in order to find out more about the massive data, telephone and Internet tapping by the US National Security Agency, for which Friedrich said answers are still pending. Friedrich promoted more protection of data for Europeans at the meeting of European interior ministers last Friday (19.07.2013).

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