When two worlds collide – over privacy

Privacy to Europeans is what sun is to a plant, an essential ingredient.

Most Europeans are therefore inclined to assume that their sensitive information is being secretly collected and used without their knowledge by their government, internet and telephone providers, or any other individuals.

Britons and Americans have a completely difference approach to issues of privacy, as they are generally more willing to accept infringement of privacy laws – especially if legitimized with arguments of national security.

This claim is more true to Americans, who, after 9/11 adopted the Patriot Act that provided US intelligence agencies significant new powers of data surveillance.

The EU and US approaches to privacy have recently clashed over the discovery of PRISM, a programme that allowed the American National Security Agency to collect sensitive material from citizens, including internet search history, email’s content, file transfers and live chats. Things did not look any better when President Barack Obama stated that most surveillance of the data collected was directed at foreigners.

While in reality PRISM is inline with the US legislation on privacy (based on the FISA Amendment Act of 2008), the privacy legislation in Europe, although dating back to 1995, does little to encourage or support mass secret surveillance programmes.

We take the same view in our bilateral and multilateral relations with other countries. Transatlantic agreements that touch upon privacy are serious matters for us, and so far, we managed to effectively block the last proposal on the SWIFT agreement (on the transfer of client data to the US from European banks) and the notorious ACTA agreement.

We are currently working to revise EU law on data protection, to also include the right to be forgotten. Furthermore, the EP’s work on the “cloud computing” has begun and I am currently drafting the opinion on behalf of the Legal Affairs Committee on this subject.

While PRISM is now a public’s common knowledge, I am sure we have yet to see the last “confidential” programme to secretly target citizen’s data. Solving now the problems resulting in the clash between the right to privacy and the right to safety will save us much trouble in the future.
I am clearly aware that finding the right balance between these two rights is not easily achievable; however I also take the view that these are two separate issues.
As such, we must treat these essential rights with the highest degree of importance and respect.

Governments using the war on terror as a justification to violate their citizens’ right to privacy may wish to consider that terrorism has its own roots. Perhaps it is wiser to tackle the problem there, rather than taking the fight to our private backyard.

Greetings from the European Parliament,

Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg

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