Glen Ruffle: EU’s privacy pot calling the US kettle black

Recent ‘revelations’ about the extent of US spying on the EU and private email communications around the world have caused a stir in Brussels, with the Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit of the European Parliament calling for the EU to “terminate all agreements” with the United States in response.

In reality, only those living in an illusory fairy-land would have been surprised that one state is seeking to monitor the activities of others. All states do this, and the EU, given enough power and half a chance, would follow suit.

Legal surveillance

Yet amid all the shouting and feigned horror, certain facts have been overlooked. The US State Department took pains to point out that, according to publicly available figures, EU law enforcement agencies rely more heavily on intercepting emails than do US ones. The authorities in France, Germany and Italy all have higher email electronic surveillance rates than the US.

The US government also pointed out that US data protection regulations are strong. An application by a Belgian judge to gain access to data stored in the US by a Belgian citizen was turned down under US data protection legislation, demonstrating that the US laws are at least as effective as EU ones.

Meanwhile, the European Data Protection Supervisor, Peter Hustinx, criticised the EU’s Cybersecurity Strategy for providing patchy coverage of privacy and failing to properly define cybercrime. Under the plan, not only the perpetrators of a crime, but victims and innocent bystanders can be subject to electronic investigation.

And as ever, this being the European Union, national agencies, such as the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, were largely overlooked in the Strategy, being inconveniently nation-state based and not promoting Brussels’ federalist dream.

In 2005, EU Justice and Interior ministers started storing phone data for up to 24 months, while Poland has regulations allowing for 15 years of storage. And in early 2013, the Obama administration is believed to have successfully lobbied the Commission to drop a clause that would have blocked any US requests for EU companies to hand over data on EU citizens. The Commission backed down in the face of US pressure.

And as EU institutions have complained about spying and secret actions, they are themselves guilty of hatching covert plans that they do not wish anyone to know of and smack as an ‘assault on free speech’: in preparation for the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, the Commission has been planning to invest 2 million euros (during an economic crisis) in controlling critical media reports and denying journalists who are critical of the EU access to information. 

Outside the law

Of course, much of the current commotion is about activities taking place outside of the law. This is not the first time that the EU has kicked up a fuss on this subject: in 2000 the European Parliament investigated the ‘Echelon’ system, fearing that the Anglo-sphere countries were conducting activities that gave them an unfair commercial and strategic advantage. Nothing conclusive was found.

And as Geoffrey Van Orden MBE MEP pointed out, EU states are themselves highly guilty of conducting their own espionage, pointing out French actions carried out against US interests in recent years. And it is clear that, should the EU acquire the facilities of a state, it too would be harnessing these resources to track communications. Brussels’ main complaint is not that privacy has been infringed, but that it has nothing to answer back with.

Dubious actions

And earlier in 2013, the European Ombudsman, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, told the Commission to stop hiding information from the public under regulation 1049/2001. This regulation allows the Commission to protect legal advice and the working of internal decision-making processes. While the first may at times need to be shielded, the second should most certainly be exposed more.

The Ombudsman also pointed out that the Commission should stop deciding for itself what ‘relevant’ means. What the Commission may deem irrelevant and not in need of disclosure may in fact be highly relevant to the person requesting.

The EU makes a good show of playing the whiter-than-white innocent in international disputes, especially with America, of which Brussels is so jealous. But closer analysis reveals that Europe needs to put its own house in order before it can truly lecture others from the moral high ground.

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