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EU Parliament: Americans' Best Hope for Privacy?

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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July 16, 2007

Data privacy issues continue to be a source of friction between the United States and Europe. Last Thursday, the European Parliament roundly condemned a new treaty that the EU Commission (the executive branch of the European Union) negotiated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This treaty would give DHS wide access to European passenger data in violation of Europe’s own privacy laws.

For a couple of years now, the Bush administration has been pressuring the Europeans for greater access to the personal information of travelers from Europe. Some European security officials and others have been eager to comply. But there’s only one problem: the EU (unlike the U.S., but like every other industrialized nation) has comprehensive privacy laws in place – and to prevent those laws from being easily circumvented, they ban the transfer of personal information to countries overseas that do not have “adequate” privacy laws of their own. The U.S., with its weak privacy laws, falls in that category.

So EU officials keep trying to fudge the issue – by obtaining vague, non-binding promises from DHS, and papering over the problem with unfounded declarations of “adequacy.” The first attempt was thrown out by the European Court of Justice on a technicality; now the DHS and European negotiators have come up with another version; that is what the Parliament overwhelmingly condemned on Thursday in a resolution broadly supported by both left and right.

Unfortunately, the parliament does not have the power to stop this: it is only being “consulted,” and the treaty is currently expected to be signed. But word is that this large majority in Parliament is likely to make the Commission sit up and take notice.

With American privacy laws as weak as they are, and our own government seemingly bent on destroying privacy as we know it, we sometimes have to look overseas for help in preserving our privacy. Let’s hope the Europeans stand firm and defend their privacy principles – that will help us all. And then maybe the U.S. can bring its own laws out of the dark ages.

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