Brussels welcomes Obama’s review of US spying programs

Germany's incoming cyber agency is based on the US Department of Defense's DARPA research agency, which has existed since the 1950s.

The European Commission has welcomed President Barack Obama's remarks and presidential directive on the review of US intelligence programmes. Obama banned US eavesdropping on the leaders of close friends and allies on Thursday (16 January).

In a major speech, Obama took steps to reassure Americans and foreigners alike that the United States will take into account privacy concerns highlighted by former spy contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the sweep of monitoring activities of the National Security Agency (NSA).

Obama promised that the United States will not eavesdrop on the heads of state or government of close US friends and allies, “unless there is a compelling national security purpose”. A senior administration official said that would apply to dozens of leaders.

The step was designed to smooth over frayed relations between, for example, the United States and Germany after reports surfaced last year that the NSA had monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Commission said that Obama's remarks have shown that “the legitimate concerns expressed by the EU” have been listened to by Washington and that “the intensive transatlantic dialogue on these issues has been genuine and is beginning to produce results”.

“We in particular welcome the President's willingness to begin to address wide-spread concerns related to the large-scale data collection by the NSA, concerns which are shared by many European citizens,” Commission’s spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said in a communiqué.

One of the biggest changes announced by Obama will be an overhaul of the government’s handling of bulk telephone “metadata” – lists of millions of phone calls made by Americans that show which numbers were called and when. Obama said the programme as it currently exists will end.

But as the announcement was made, media outlets reported that the NSA gathers nearly 200 million text messages a day from around the world and has put software in almost 100,000 computers allowing it to spy on those devices.

The Commission has concerns regarding the way the USA treat data protection of EU citizens.

According to Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, responsible for justice and fundamental rights, an American who has concerns regarding the use of his personal data in France can address a French tribunal, but EU citizens who have a similar problem in the US cannot turn to a US court.

According to the Commission, data protection is a fundamental right and the EU does not make any difference regarding the nationality of the individuals concerned.

“We particularly welcome the willingness of President Obama to extend safeguards currently available to US citizens as regards data collection for national security purposes to non-US citizens. We will now explore the full implications of this commitment,” Ahrenkilde-Hansen states.

According to her, a number of questions still remain open and will need to be addressed in detail. Therefore the Commission expects to continue dialogue with the US, along the lines set in the Commission's communication of 27 November 2013 on "Rebuilding Trust in EU-US Data Flows".

This includes an improvement of the Safe Harbour scheme that would address security issues in a way that strengthens trust in transatlantic data transfers to the US in the commercial sector.

Also, the Commission expects that an umbrella agreement on data protection in the area of law enforcement that will guarantee enforceable rights for EU citizens, including judicial redress for EU citizens not resident in the US, would be swiftly concluded.

Last October, Commission Vice President Viviane Reding, responsible for Justice and Fundamental Rights, issued a stark warning that data protection could derail the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks. 

Negotiations between the US and the EU on TTIP commenced in July this year.

If successful, the deal would cover more than 40% of global GDP and account for large shares of world trade and foreign direct investment.  The EU-US trade relationship is already the biggest in the world. Traded goods and services are worth €2 billion.

The agreement, the biggest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated, could result in millions of euros of savings to companies and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. It is expected that every year an average European household would gain an extra €545 and our economy would be boosted by around 0.5% of GDP, once the deal was fully implemented.

Brussels and Washington have set the ambitious goal of completing negotiations by the end of 2014.

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