EU ratchets up pressure on US over Prism spy scheme

Viviane Reding, now MEP, created the Rule of Law mechanism as Commissioner.

EU lawmakers want to forbid the United States from accessing European citizens' data without the approval of a judge or equivalent authority, a response to the revelations about the Prism spy programme.

Lawmakers from the European People's Party (EPP), the biggest group in the European Parliament, on Wednesday (19 June) backed a proposal that would force US officials to use an existing international agreement to gain access to citizens' data.

That agreement, known as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), asks that a judge – or equivalent "competent authority" – approve any transfer of data outside the EU.

The European Commission pushed for such a stipulation during negotiations over data privacy in 2011, but backed down after lobbying by the United States, which was worried it would slow access to data needed to combat terrorism threats.

The EPP's backing for the change – which would force all non-EU countries to go through a judge or equivalent authority in the relevant EU country – increases the likelihood that it will become law, although it would still require approval from EU member states as well as majority backing in parliament.

"It prevents third countries from accessing our data at will or at random – an important protection for citizens in light of the recent PRISM ‘net-tapping' revelations," Sean Kelly, an Irish member of the EPP, said of the proposal.

US officials have confirmed the existence of Prism, a programme to collect data from Google, Facebook, Skype and other US companies, after a whistleblower leaked documents to the Guardian and Washington Post revealing the operation.

Reding questions US

Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, has expressed her frustration about Prism, writing to US Attorney General Eric Holder last week to demand an explanation for its activities in Europe.

Speaking to MEPs in an exchange of views yesterday, Reding said that Holder answered some, but not all of her questions.

Reding wrote a new letter jointly with home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström to the secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, asking for further answers on Prism and requesting a meeting in July to discuss EU and US data protection.

Meanwhile Parliament's civil liberties committee is expected to hold a first vote on the Commission’s data protection proposal in September or October, having announced on Wednesday that it would be unable to agree a draft before the summer.

Europeans have reacted angrily to revelations that US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about American Web giants' reach and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US are about to launch transatlantic trade talks.

  • July 2013: Joint EU-US meeting on data issues requested by Viviane Reding, the commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship

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