It’s good to talk in public about privacy and data protection
Fundamental privacy and data protection rights are not negotiable, says Viviane Reding
European Commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship Viviane Reding: ‘The Americans, according to their law, have the right to ask all companies to hand out data on the basis of the Patriot Act. That is not possible under European law. So these companies are in a conflict. Do they obey the Americans? They are contrary to European law. Do they obey European law? Then they are contrary to American law.’ photograph: Mac Innes Photography/Department of The Taoiseach via Getty Images
“The Europeans won’t let this go. They want to know clearly what has really been going on.”
Sitting in one of the State apartments in Dublin Castle, the EU vice president and commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, Viviane Reding, is polite, but clearly, deeply frustrated. At a joint press conference with US attorney general Eric Holder held earlier in the day last Friday, Reding had stated that the fundamental privacy and data protection rights of Europeans were “non-negotiable”.
Waiting media were eager to hear what her response would be to recent revelations by former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor Edward Snowden, on the existence of two secret schemes run by the US national Security Agency (NSA) for gathering vast amounts of personal phone and online data. One took in millions of phone call records over many years from operator Verizon; the other, named Prism, involved as yet unclear arrangements whereby nine large US technology companies, such as Skype, Apple, Facebook and Google, supplied data on request.
Reports following the Reding/Holder press conference primarily focused on her acceptance of American explanations that the data were collected under court order and with the oversight of the US Congress, a level of transparency which she deemed sufficient.
Her own intention seems to have been to stress the “non-negotiable” angle, however.
Whether that came across at a press event in which the burning issues of data protection, privacy, and Prism, were nowhere on the formal agenda (the stated topic was “victims’ rights” and Reding herself had to move the subject on to the elephant in the room, data protection and Prism) is open to debate.
But in an interview with The Irish Times, shortly after the press conference, she emphasises that US reassurances were only “the starting point” of longer discussions.
“I consider the whole thing as a first step in the right direction, to create transparency, and to give us also the answers in the second step, the still open questions. How will this be set up, this transparency mechanism, to explain to the people what [the government] are doing, and for what reason. And how many people are concerned by this? Is it hundreds? Is it thousands? Is it millions? All this still has to come out,” she says.
“Are the rights of the European citizens protected? Is there a possibility for European citizens who think they have been treated abusively, to have redress? All these things are questions which are still open and which Eric Holder promised to us.”
Nonetheless she felt her opening discussions with him “were very down to earth, calm, let’s go to the facts. And yes, we might not agree about everything, but let’s put everything on the table, for discussion.”
The agreed-upon next step is “to have the experts on security and data protection on both sides of the Atlantic to sit together in order to clarify those [questions]”.
She smiles. “So I cannot say that I will go home and sleep quietly after, but I am somewhat relieved that there was not an ideological exchange of views, but a dialogue on facts and figures. A serious one.”