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January 28, 2014

“Data protection in the European Union is a fundamental right,” says EU Justice Commissioner

EU delivers key speech on data protection following NSA revelations.

By Ben Sullivan

The EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has slammed NSA Prism intrusion in a speech delivered today at the Centre for European Policy Studies.

"Two years ago, on 25 January 2012, a great debate began in Europe. A debate about data protection in a world of total connectivity. About privacy in a world where data flows across borders as easily as the air we breathe. About the future of the digital economy," said Reding.

"9 months ago, the debate took an unexpected turn. The first stories about PRISM were published. Since then, headlines have been dominated by stories about government surveillance. In my dialogues with citizens across the Union, the sense of shock was palpable. We have learned that the times of mass surveillance are not relegated to the past.

"Data collection by companies and surveillance by governments. These issues are connected, not separate. The surveillance revelations involve companies whose services we all use on a daily basis. Backdoors have been built, encryption has been weakened. Concerns about government surveillance drive consumers away from digital services. From a citizen’s perspective, the underlying issue is the same in both cases. Data should not be kept simply because storage is cheap. Data should not be processed simply because algorithms are refined. Safeguards should apply and citizens should have rights."

She then went on to discuss how trust can be restored in EU data flows.

"The Commission took a firm stance from the first surveillance revelations, saying loud and clear that mass surveillance is unacceptable. We set out the steps that should be taken to rebuild trust in EU-U.S. data flows. Three steps are of particular importance.

"First, we must make Safe Harbour safer. The Commission has made 13 concrete recommendations. 13 ways to improve all aspects of the functioning of Safe Harbour. Let me put it simply: we kicked the tyres and saw that repairs are needed. For Safe Harbour to be fully roadworthy the U.S. will have to service it. This summer, we will see how well those repairs were carried out. Safe Harbour has to be strengthened or it will be suspended.

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"Secondly, we have to agree on strong data protection rules in the law enforcement context. We need a robust EU-U.S. data protection agreement in the law enforcement sector (the so-called Umbrella Agreement) which ensures EU citizens keep their rights when their data is processed in the U.S. This is not theory. What if your name is identical to that of a suspect in a transatlantic criminal investigation? Your data accidentally gets collected and included on a U.S. black list. You should be able to have it deleted by the authorities – if necessary by a judge – once the mistake is discovered. Europeans (and Americans) have those rights in the EU. They should have them when their data is exchanged with the U.S.

"Thirdly, we must ensure that European concerns are addressed in the reform of U.S. surveillance programmes. President Obama’s speech just 10 days ago is a step in the right direction. He recognised that the current data collection programmes go too far. New limits on bulk data collection will be imposed. He also responded to a long-standing request from the European Commission, namely to give European citizens who do not live in the U.S. rights and protection when their data is being processed across the Atlantic. In his Presidential Policy Directive, President Obama gave clear instructions for current safeguards that apply to U.S. citizens – such as the principle of data minimisation and retention – to in future be available to "all persons, regardless of their nationality or wherever they might reside"."

Reding finished by stating that, currently, national governments in the EU are unable to guarantee citizens’ personal data is well protected, but the Data Protection Compact would change this. The plan would ‘enable us Europeans to exercise our right of digital self-determination.’

"Europe is there to ensure that the rights and interests of our citizens are well protected. And, on that basis, to agree on terms with our partners in the world. Alongside the European Parliament and the majority of governments in Europe, I will continue fighting for this. Because our citizens deserve nothing less."

Photo courtesy Veni Markovski.



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