Some European states likely to put pressure on US over breaches of citizens’ privacy
We want to know clearly what has been going on, says justice commissioner Reding
EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, with Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and US attorney general Eric Holder in Dublin. Ms Reding said: “The Europeans won’t let this go. They want to know clearly what has really been going on.” Photograph: Department of The Taoiseach via Getty Images
As the European Parliament sunk its teeth yesterday afternoon into the subject of US government surveillance activities – in particular new claims by whistleblower Edward Snowden that the US government bugged US-based European Union offices – anger and indignation were to be expected.
Doing anything about such activities will take more than speeches from the parliament floor, however.
The real challenge for Europeans, as well as for Americans and anyone else alarmed by Snowden’s revelations of the US government’s surveillance activities (some of which have been acknowledged by the US), is to determine how to ensure greater transparency in the oversight process for approved surveillance and prevent unwarranted, broadbased surveillance activity in future.
Even before German magazine Der Spiegel broke the EU-bugging story this past week, Europe wanted explanations about Snowden’s earlier revelation of Prism, a computer-based system for requesting data on non-US citizens from internet and social media companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google.
EU vice-president and justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who met US attorney general Eric Holder in Dublin recently, told The Irish Times, “The Europeans won’t let this go. They want to know clearly what has really been going on.” The EU wanted to understand precisely what mechanisms were in place to ensure adequate oversight, she said, and wanted EU citizen data handled with the greater privacy protections afforded them under European law.
Euractiv.com reported this week that the European Parliament would announce the establishment of a special committee to investigate the reports on US surveillance activities. The committee would fall under the parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and produce a report by the year’s end.
But TJ McIntyre, UCD law lecturer and chairman of Digital Rights Ireland, said adequately addressing and preventing unwanted surveillance done outside European legal frameworks would be extraordinarily difficult for Europe.
“The US-dominated online services are going to be subject to US laws, which allow for this level of activity,” he said. “To a large extent, this is going to be governed by realpolitik. There’s relatively little governments like Ireland can do.”
On the other hand, European governments with more stringent views on privacy, such as Germany, might apply real pressure for change, he said.
But the institutions that have oversight of surveillance activities within the US do not do this job adequately, according to damning comments by US congressman Rob Holt, a former member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and former chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel.
Writing in the Huffington Post recently, Holt noted that “the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the judicial body designed to review – and if necessary refuse – government surveillance requests” has approved more than 33,000 requests and refused only 11 since 1979.
“If federal authorities want to see the data of an American citizen, they should be forced to come through the front door – and only with a court order based on probable cause, as our founders intended,” he concluded.
But will the US government reform sweeping and permissive surveillance legislation brought in via the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that deeply shook the US?