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29 Jan, 2014 01:05

EU justice chief accuses bloc of hypocrisy in data privacy debates

EU justice chief accuses bloc of hypocrisy in data privacy debates

The EU needs to start protecting its own citizens from the American global spying initiatives and quit being “hypocritical” when it comes to reforming its own data protection system, said the EU’s Justice Commissioner.

Viviane Reding, a vocal critic of American cyber surveillance, lashed out against EU member states’ reaction in wake of Edward Snowden revelations, urging the bloc to protect citizens’ private information and seek more legal assurances from Washington.

“There's been a lot of hypocrisy in the debate,”Reding said at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels on Tuesday. “If the EU wants to be credible in its efforts to rebuild trust, if it wants to act as an example for other continents, it also has to get its own house in order.”

The EU itself should also look carefully at some of its [data protection] laws. Neither the Commission, the Council, nor the European Parliament can be proud of the Data Retention Directive.”

The Directive requires telecom companies to store all telephony metadata, including geo-location data. Criticizing some aspects of the Directive, Reding said that the data “is kept for too long, it is too easily accessed and the risk of abuse is too great.”

AFP Photo

“One cannot simply use ‘national security’ as a trump card and disregard citizens' rights. That is what others used to do. The European Data Retention law needs a health check. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is the medicine,” she told the audience in Brussels.

EU member states are currently engaged in negotiations on a new data protection law which would require companies like Google, Facebook, or Twitter to ask for permission from authorities before using personal information. But governments have yet to agree on the wording as the EU Parliament threatens to block the law if privacy concerns are not properly addressed.

In particular, Reding criticized Britain over its role in helping the US spy overseas, warning that if allegations of the UK’s involvement in intercepting and storing personal data from fibre optic cables were true, she would launch “infringement proceedings”. While stating that EU has no power over its member’s national security operations, Reding called for a strong response.

“If I come across a single email, a single piece of evidence that the TEMPORA program [British spy agency GCHQ surveillance program] is not used purely for national security purposes, I will launch infringement proceedings. The mass collection of personal data is unacceptable.”

The European Commission wrote a letter to the UK government expressing its concerns about the scope of the TEMPORA program. The response was evidently not what Brussels had anticipated.

“The response was short: ‘Hands off, this is national security’,” Reding said.

At the same time, the EU’s justice chief urged the US to provide more legal safeguards to strengthen the Safe Harbour data privacy agreement. If such provisions were not met, Reding warned she would work to suspend the agreement that allows companies that gather consumer information in Europe to send it to the United States.

“For Safe Harbour to be fully roadworthy the US will have to service it,” she said. “Safe Harbour has to be strengthened or it will be suspended.”

Commenting on the latest leak that implicated the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, to have the ability to harvest sensitive personal data from phone apps that transmit users’ data across the web, such as the extremely popular Angry Birds game, Reding said:

“Now I know why the ‘Angry birds’ look so angry. Often with applications, the rule is 'take it or leave it'. That’s when trust evaporates. That's when people feel forced to part with their privacy.”

Reding also drew on the interconnected issues of data collection by private firms and spying activities by governments.

“Backdoors have been built, encryption has been weakened. Concerns about government surveillance drive consumers away from digital services.”

Private data should not be kept forever simply because storage has become cost-effective, Reding said. “Data should not be processed simply because algorithms are refined. Safeguards should apply and citizens should have rights.”