European Concern over Prism Program (6/24)     Print Email

By Caitlin Del Sole, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

The recent public revelation about U.S. government surveillance of emails and other internet communication from “foreigners” in the National Security Agency (NSA) Prism program has deeply unsettled Europeans. Data protection has always been a point of particular contention across the Atlantic, and the Prism program revelations confirm some of the worst fears about how the United States actually handles foreigners’ data. “Here we go again: Another violation of the basic right to privacy,” wrote Viviane Reding,  the European Commission’s Vice President for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times. “Another public outcry.  Another blow to citizens’ trust in the security of their personal data,” continued Reding.  “Yet more evidence that something fundamental has to change…”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern as soon as the story broke and subsequently broached the subject with President Barack Obama during his visit to Berlin.   The Germans noted, not positively,  that in one test month  the U.S. surveillance  program collected more  data from Germany than any other European country (although seeking information from  Middle East sources.)

President Obama addressed the issue in his remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, stating that “our current programs are bound by the rule of law, and they're focused on threats to our security -- not the communications of ordinary persons.  They help confront real dangers, and they keep people safe here in the United States and here in Europe.”  He proceeded to welcome a democratic debate on the issue, and stressing the importance of a strong continued transatlantic relationship.

One of the EU’s most outspoken defenders  of privacy rights,  EU Vice President Reding had also expressed her apprehension in a June 10th letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and requested more information about how Prism works, what avenues European citizens have for determining whether their personal data had been used, and whether in such cases would Europeans  receive the same treatment as Americans.

While she welcomed a response from the U.S. government, she said she “will expect swift and concrete answers” which could influence the European Parliament’s assessment of “the overall trans-Atlantic relationship,” implying that this issue could impact the coming trade negotiations, which were formally kicked off June 18 at the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland.

At a meeting with EU ministers in Dublin, Eric Holder sought to reassure his European counterparts about the Prism program, telling them that “the collection of intelligence in this program is subject to an extensive oversight regime in co-operating reviews of the legislative, executive as well as the judicial branches,” to which Reding replied that she hoped his reassurances proved to be true.

Hannes Swoboda, Austrian leader of the center-left members of the European Parliament,  one of many Parliamentarians,  vocally denounced the program and showed how the controversy can complicate the trade negotiations, saying that “there will be a growing resistance against an agreement with the U.S. unless there are some clear guarantees from their side that our European principles of data protection are respected.”

Swoboda also hinted that the British intelligence agency, GCHQ, may have been colluding with the NSA to circumvent British privacy laws to collect information on its citizens.  William Hague, British foreign minister, dismissed these accusations, acknowledging that the U.S. and UK have shared a lot of information with each other since World War II, but asserting that British intelligence operates entirely within the law. “If information arrives from the U.S., it is covered by our laws. The idea of GHCQ people sitting working out how to circumvent UK law with another agency is fanciful – it’s nonsense.”

Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) issued a press release last week asserting that “cyber security is not an excuse for the unlimited monitoring and analysis of the personal information of individuals.”  Reflecting on the EU cyber security strategy and not directly on the PRISM scandal, he said that “if the EU wants to cooperate with other countries, including the USA, on cyber security, it must necessarily be on the basis of mutual trust and respect for fundamental rights, a foundation which currently appears compromised.”

The European Union has been struggling for 18 months through 25 meetings to negotiate new Data Protection Regulation (DPR) laws, but even after 3,000 amendments, there are still significant divisions among European leaders.  It has also come to light that the Obama administration, including U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, directly and successfully lobbied the EU to remove Article 42 from revised legislation.  Article 42, more commonly known as the “anti-FISA clause,” after the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the U.S. government to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails pursuant to secret court approval, would have limited the ability of the U.S. to request companies outside the U.S.  to hand over personal data information.

While speaking to the European Parliament last week, Reding indicated that the Commission would “look favorably” on the reinstatement of Article 42.  Reding argued that Prism allows U.S. security authorities to survey EU citizens differently than American citizens without affording them access to American courts.  “The Prism scandal has sparked a debate about civil liberties in general and privacy in particular. Politicians in Europe and beyond should show that they have listened. Trust is something that is earned, not given. The E.U.’s data protection reform is the right tool to earn citizens’ trust. It is within our reach. It is time to act,” Reding wrote.