The move comes after widespread outrage following Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations last year about US surveillance practices in Europe (particularly in Germany). As EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said, following a meeting with US attorney general Eric Holder in Athens yesterday at which the announcement was made,
‘EU-US relations have been strained lately in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations but we have worked very hard to restore trust.’
Holder, for his part, stated that,
‘The Obama administration is committed to seeking legislation that would ensure that … EU citizens would have the same right to seek judicial redress for intentional or wilful disclosures of protected information and for refusal to grant access or to rectify any errors in that information, as would a US citizen under the Privacy Act.
This commitment, which has long been sought by the EU, reflects our resolve to move forward not only on the data protection and privacy agreement but on strengthening transatlantic ties.’
The agreement relates to personal data shared with the US by European countries for law enforcement purposes, and Holden was keen to play up how it might be used to combat terrorism, and prevent ‘radicalized’ Muslims from volunteering to fight in Syria,
‘One consistent theme ran through all our discussions: in a world of globalised crime and terrorism, we can protect our citizens only if we work together. At the same time, we must ensure that we continue our long tradition of protecting privacy in the law enforcement context.’
Human rights groups have cautiously welcomed the proposals, although doubts have been expressed over whether they will make actually make it into law, and of the effectiveness of the proposal given the scale of US spying efforts. Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, said,
‘It is a good step forward. Nonetheless, there are three massive impediments to achieving equivalent protection under law. First, Congress needs to act on this and we haven’t seen many positive steps on protecting non-Americans’ rights,’ adding that the US Privacy Act was “an unfortunately weak legal regime.’
Similar views were expressed by senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch, Cynthia Wong, who said that,
‘It may be a small step in the right direction but much more needs to be done to address data protection in the US and to rein in the sheer scale of what the NSA is collecting.’
The fact that the proposals only cover EU citizens, providing no protections for non-US citizens in Asia, Africa, the rest of the America’s, and everywhere else in the world, has also come under sharp criticism.