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Privacy Concerns

DW staff (sp)July 2, 2008

The EU and the US are edging closer to a deal ensuring data privacy as the two increasingly share sensitive information on their citizens such as credit card details and travel histories in the fight against terrorism.

US and EU flags
The US and EU are coming closer to finding common ground on data privacy and sharingImage: AP

A senior EU official said on Tuesday, July 2 the European Union could strike a deal with the United States next year to protect personal data collected on their citizens to bolster the fight against terrorism but warned that important questions still needed to be resolved.

"The work is not over yet, there's still more to be done, but we may look forward I think, if things continue to go well, to an international agreement probably some time next year," Jonathan Faull, director of the European Commission's justice and interior affairs department said at a news briefing in Brussels.

Faull said he and US officials have been holding informal talks over the past 18 months to draft common standards on how data such as credit card details, e-mails or passenger travel records should be handled by authorities.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Faull said the pact would cover data transferred for law enforcement purposes only.

"It's very much in our interests to pin our American friends down to a set of agreed, common -- we hope binding -- principles. We are 70-80 percent of the way there," Faull told reporters in Brussels. But he warned: "The remaining discussions will not be easy."

Data privacy way to building trust

The EU and the US have been in talks on the sensitive issue of data protection and sharing ever since US officials demanded access to passenger name records (PNR) on flights from the EU to the US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

While both the EU and the US want to further push data sharing among police and counter-terrorism officials, there is acknowledgement the topic is a sensitive one and both sides say they need to cooperate on data privacy to build trust.

Einreise Kontrolle USA
A deal allowing Washington access to private data on air passengers traveling to the US raised hackles in EuropeImage: AP

In recent years, privacy advocates and rights groups in Europe have strongly criticized deals with Washington including one giving it access to private data on air passengers travelling to the US and the right to keep the information for 15 years. Another allowed the US government to consult records of Swift, a consortium that tracks global bank transfers, including those of European customers in anti-terrorism investigations.

Reacting to criticism by European lawmakers and rights groups that data-sharing deals lacked privacy protection, a panel of EU and US justice officials set up more than a year ago has sought to assuage fears about privacy erosion.

In a report, the panel concluded that a binding deal on data privacy would be the best way to boost cooperation in fighting crime and terrorism.

Sticking points remain

US and EU officials have also been trying to narrow down a set of core principles to protect information about Europeans handed to the United States, and offer them legal recourse if needed.

They have already agreed on 12 principles, including security, what constitutes sensitive data, the purpose of its use and effective and independent oversight of exchanges. Among the principles agreed by the EU-US panel was that information revealing a person's racial or ethnic origins, political, religious or philosophical views and health or sexual orientation may not be processed unless domestic legislation provides appropriate safeguards.

They also agreed people should be told about use of their data, which must be supervised by an independent authority.

But the two sides are still at odds on several other matters, including whether European citizens should be able to sue the US government over its handling of their personal data. Europeans currently do not have the same legal rights in the United States as US citizens do in Europe.

Faull said an agreement on data privacy "would give us a platform of agreed data protection principles on which we still have to build further negotiations of detail."

But he pointed out: "it will not be blanket authorization for data transfers between the European Union and the United States."

Faull also played down concerns Washington would eventually be able to access data contained in the vast computer system monitoring control border crossings in Europe's so-called Schengen passport-free zone.

"We are not opening up the Schengen database. Fullstop," he said.