This Big Brother Is in the U.S.
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
endorse the same plan Jul. 8, having been granted a small number of
This has its roots in a U.S. move to snoop on data held by Swift, a
based company that facilitates exchanges between banks, following the
11 atrocities. Under the pretext of tracking the "money trail" of
Washington authorities used subpoenas to gain access to Swift's data.
even though personal details on millions of individuals were transferred
across the Atlantic, the public was not informed that such transfers
taking place until a report appeared in The New York Times in 2006.
Eager to allow the transfers to continue, the European Union's
accepted an accord designed to give Washington the necessary legal cover
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.
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
how MEPs felt they had been excluded from talks over the accord's
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
governments and Barack Obama's administration in the U.S. sought to
address some of their concerns. A few modifications to the agreement
been made, including a provision for stationing an EU official in
to monitor the accord's implementation.
But privacy campaigners say that the core deficiencies in the agreement
not been remedied.
"The fundamental points that were rejected by the Parliament the first
are in the text again," Joe McNamee from European Digital Rights told
seems that what the Parliament has been searching for is a way of
down. The amount of data involved remains pretty much the same."
The data held by Swift includes the names of bank account holders and
numbers of those accounts. Because the volume of information concerned
so vast, the EU's own Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx has
that the measures envisaged in the November accord "interfere with the
private life of all Europeans." There are no guarantees that data will
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
Washington will be able to block the transfer of data if it is being
Although his stance is being supported by a majority in the Parliament,
MEPs are continuing to voice serious misgivings. Opponents say that the
agreement is illegal because it violates the right to privacy, which is
in the European Convention on Human Rights. All EU countries are
respect that convention.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green, said: "Nothing has really changed.
sorts of personal data concerning innocent European citizens are still
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
this doesn't change American law and that it doesn't go through the
Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch Liberal MEP who specialises in civil
she was only supporting the revised accord because she did not believe
would be politically possible to hammer out a better deal. "There is no
for jubilation but it is the least bad option," she said, warning that
accord's shortcoming left it vulnerable to legal challenges.
As part of the changes to the agreement, the EU has undertaken to set up
own "terrorism finance tracking programme", so that it can analyse bank
transactions within Europe. Supporters of the accord say that this step
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
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
of the "war on terror" declared by its former president George W. Bush.
2005, for example, MEPs accepted sweeping measures to make
telecommunications firms retain details of all phone calls and email
made and sent by ordinary citizens.