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25th Jun 2018

EU breaks silence on US snooping scandal

  • Borg - among the most junior EU commissioners - faced questions from MEPs on Tuesday (Photo: European Parliament)

A junior EU official on Tuesday (11 June) broke Brussels' silence on US data snooping, urging Washington not to abuse its "special relationship" with Europe.

Tonio Borg - the Malteste commissioner in charge of health and consumer affairs - told the European Parliament in Strasbourg: "Programmes such as the so-called Prism and the laws on the basis of which such programmes are authorised potentially endanger the fundamental right to privacy and the data protection of EU citizens."

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He added in off-the-cuff remarks that: "No one should use this special relationship not to obey the law. This is the fine balancing act."

The Guardian and the Washington Post over the weekend broke news that America's National Security Agency (NSA) is snooping on millions of European's data held by firms such as Google or Facebook.

The leak, by former NSA officer Edward Snowden, has caused a public furore.

But Brussels so far had voiced only vague "concern" about the revelations.

It had also declined to answer questions on Fisa, the US intelligence law which underpins the operation.

Commission vice-president Vivianne Reding, in charge of data privacy, spoke about Fisa with US attorney general Eric Holder in Washington in April amid talks on a broader EU-US data pact.

But her office repeatedly told EUobserver it had "no comment" on US intelligence legislation.

Borg noted on Tuesday that Reding will ask the US for "clarification" on Prism and that she will tackle the scandal with EU interior ministers on 13 June and with MEPs on 19 June.

But some MEPs rounded on him for the absence of top people in Tuesday's debate.

Dutch Liberal Sophie in 't Veld said commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso should have taken a helicopter to Strasbourg given the scale of the affair.

"Where is the responsible commissioner? … Asking [data-related] questions to the commission is like talking to a wall," she said.

She noted the EU parliament is also failing to take the case seriously, with just a few MEPs bothering to turn up to Tuesday's debate.

Speaking on the substance of Prism/Fisa, Borg indicated he sympathises with US security concerns. "Let us not forget who the real enemy is," he said, alluding to anti-Western terrorists.

For his part, Finland's EU affairs minister Alexander Stubb also voiced mixed emotions on Twitter.

He said on Tuesday under the hashtag "#reality" that Finnish security services have advised him to "work as if someone reads your e-mails and listens to your mobile at all times."

He added under the hashtag "#liberty" that "as a private individual I should be protected from being snooped."

Fisa gives US intelligence the right to pry into foreigners' data, including on the Cloud, even if they are not suspected of any crime.

US intelligence chief James R. Clapper has said the NSA must get a court warrant before it delves in.

But out of 21,000 requests filed under recent US administrations, judges gave him the go ahead in 99.97 percent of cases.

Speaking to this website in separate remarks on the broader EU-US data privacy pact, In 't Veld said the commission has already "watered down" key clauses on data safeguards.

She noted that most of her information on the data pact also comes from leaks instead of official channels.

"The commission and the [EU] Council always classify [related] documents as 'confidential' or 'secret' at the request of the Americans," she said.

Speaking on Tuesday in plenary, she added that Fisa privacy safeguards do not apply to non-US "foreigners" despite the "special" EU-US ties.

"Foreigners - that's us, that's European citizens," she said.

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