This Big Brother Is in the U.S.

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

This Big Brother Is in the U.S.

by
David Cronin

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)

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.

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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