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This Big Brother Is in the U.S.

by David Cronin

BRUSSELS - Private information on innocent citizens will be handed over to U.S. law enforcement authorities under an agreement slated for approval by the European Parliament this week.

Private information on innocent citizens will be handed over to U.S. law enforcement authorities under an agreement slated for approval by the European Parliament this week. (photo by Flickr user surfstyle) In February, members of the Parliament (MEPs) rejected a plan to allow data on everyday bank transactions be given to the U.S., citing concerns over fundamental civil rights. Four months later, however, MEPs are expected to endorse the same plan Jul. 8, having been granted a small number of concessions.

This has its roots in a U.S. move to snoop on data held by Swift, a Belgian- based company that facilitates exchanges between banks, following the Sep. 11 atrocities. Under the pretext of tracking the "money trail" of terrorists, the Washington authorities used subpoenas to gain access to Swift's data. Yet even though personal details on millions of individuals were transferred across the Atlantic, the public was not informed that such transfers were taking place until a report appeared in The New York Times in 2006.

Eager to allow the transfers to continue, the European Union's governments accepted an accord designed to give Washington the necessary legal cover in November last year. This accord drew angry response from civil liberties watchdogs, who pointed out that people whose data was abused would have no means of seeking redress. The new privacy legislation in the U.S. only offers protection against unlawful data processing to U.S. citizens and residents, not to outsiders under scrutiny by the U.S. authorities.

The Parliament's revolt against that accord was prompted in large measure by how MEPs felt they had been excluded from talks over the accord's content, and by their desire to exercise new powers under the EU's Lisbon treaty, which gives them a greater say in many policy areas. As a result, the Union's governments and Barack Obama's administration in the U.S. sought to address some of their concerns. A few modifications to the agreement have been made, including a provision for stationing an EU official in Washington to monitor the accord's implementation.

But privacy campaigners say that the core deficiencies in the agreement have not been remedied.

"The fundamental points that were rejected by the Parliament the first time are in the text again," Joe McNamee from European Digital Rights told IPS. "It seems that what the Parliament has been searching for is a way of backing down. The amount of data involved remains pretty much the same."

The data held by Swift includes the names of bank account holders and the numbers of those accounts. Because the volume of information concerned is so vast, the EU's own Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has protested that the measures envisaged in the November accord "interfere with the private life of all Europeans." There are no guarantees that data will no longer be stored after a certain length of time or after it has been proven to be of no benefit in an investigation, he has said.

Alexander Alvaro, a German Liberal MEP who has been tasked with drafting the Parliament's official response to the accord, says that he and his colleagues "have got clear concessions" since February. The EU official sent to Washington will be able to block the transfer of data if it is being abused, he claimed.

Although his stance is being supported by a majority in the Parliament, some MEPs are continuing to voice serious misgivings. Opponents say that the agreement is illegal because it violates the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. All EU countries are required to respect that convention.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green, said: "Nothing has really changed. All sorts of personal data concerning innocent European citizens are still being sent to the U.S."

Rui Tavares, a Portuguese left-wing MEP, said European citizens will be discriminated against as a result of the agreement. "We know full well that this doesn't change American law and that it doesn't go through the American Congress."

Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch Liberal MEP who specialises in civil liberties, said she was only supporting the revised accord because she did not believe it would be politically possible to hammer out a better deal. "There is no reason for jubilation but it is the least bad option," she said, warning that the accord's shortcoming left it vulnerable to legal challenges.

As part of the changes to the agreement, the EU has undertaken to set up its own "terrorism finance tracking programme", so that it can analyse bank transactions within Europe. Supporters of the accord say that this step should enable the Union to eliminate the bulk transfer of data to the U.S.

The latest agreement also gives Europol, the EU's police cooperation agreement, a role in its implementation. But privacy campaigners point out that Europol is not a data protection body.

This is not the first time that the European Parliament has succumbed to pressure to approve controversial measures that the U.S. has sought as part of the "war on terror" declared by its former president George W. Bush. In 2005, for example, MEPs accepted sweeping measures to make telecommunications firms retain details of all phone calls and email messages made and sent by ordinary citizens.

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