Data ‘Safe Harbour’ under threat as US castigates EU Parliament over Snowden


The 'Safe Harbour' agreement allowing ease of data transfers by US and EU companies should be scrapped pending a more rigorous data umbrella agreement between the two in the wake of the NSA scandal, an influential parliamentary report will recommend.

British MEP Claude Moraes (Socialists & Democrats) told the press yesterday (17 December) that his report for the European Parliament's civil liberties committee on mass surveillance will make the recommendation when the group meets in January, with a view to being put through at a plenary session in February 2014.

Moraes was speaking at a joint press conference with a US delegation led by Mike Rogers, the chairman of the US House of Representatives’ permanent select committee on intelligence, which drew fierce criticism from the US lawmaker for the decision by the Parliament to call testimony from Edward Snowden.

US congressman says thoughts on Snowden 'unprintable'

Snowden, who fled his native US before unleashing a series of revelations that have embarrassed the country’s security services, is currently living in Russia, where he has been granted a year of asylum (see background).

He is expected to give evidence before the Parliament's civil liberties committee via video recording during one of the upcoming meetings on the surveillance scandal.

“I am not sure it would be fit to print,” Rogers said of his thoughts on Snowden’s appearance before the EU legislature.

“I personally do not believe that it rises to the dignity of this body to have someone who is wanted for a crime in the US for stealing information that has jeopardised the lives of US soldiers in Afghanistan and other places around the world,” he added.

Rogers said that the appearance of Snowden “would have a reaction in the US that would not be helpful to a constructive dialogue as we continue to work out our differences here".

He said it was tantamount to “having the janitor of the bank who figured out how to steal some money being brought in to talk about high finance and solve the problem – not a great idea”.

The Parliament’s move to halt the Safe Harbour rule will ratchet up the ongoing dispute between the EU and the US in relation to data flows following in the wake of the NSA scandal.

Safe Harbour is a voluntary framework created through an agreement between the US and the EU, intended to bridge the gap between EU standards for data protection and the perceived lack of similar US standards.

US companies benefit from Safe Harbour

The process allows US companies to transfer personal data of EU citizens to the US, but requires that such companies self-certify before the US Department of Commerce that they meet EU requirements for privacy and protection of personal data.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and many other US companies are part of the Safe Harbour compliance programme, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

The joint EU-US press conference marked a step backwards following recent efforts to smooth relations in the wake of the NSA scandal.

“We are very discontent with the Safe Harbour agreement and believe that it should be suspended and we should adopt the data protection umbrella package in 2014 with protections for EU citizens in respect of the NSA surveillance,” said Moraes.

Speaking afterwards Dutch MEP Sophie in t’Veld of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe hit back at the US delegation for its attitude towards Snowden. She said that – during the private meetings – the US delegation had referred to Snowden as a traitor and criminal.

“The problem here is that it does not give one confidence that he would be treated fairly if he returned to the US for trial. The decision on whether Snowden should give evidence before the European Parliament is one for the parliament to take, not this US delegation,” she added.

“We believe that it would be very helpful if the long ongoing negotiations  an umbrella agreement on data protection could be concluded as soon as possible . The EP accepted Swift and PNR because a data protection umbrella agreement was promised, and it is almost ready save for the rights of EU citizen,” said German MEP Elmar Brok (European People’s Party; Germany), the chairman of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

“Cancelling safe harbour will have negative consequences for both sides and hopefully this can be avoided,” Brok added.  

Whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed earlier this year that the US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data.

Europeans have reacted angrily to allegations that a US intelligence agency had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about the reach of the government and American web giants and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US are launching landmark trade talks.

Snowden is living in Russia under temporary political asylum and is considered a fugitive from justice by American authorities.

  • January 2014: Parliament's civil liberties committee to consider scrapping the Safe Harbour agreement

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