After new allegations appeared in several reports (TV Globo, Der Spiegel) revealed that the NSA has been tapping into personal financial data from the SWIFT database, members of the European Parliament are considering the potential termination of the EU-US cooperation on terrorism.
This was object of an high pitched discussion during the 3rd hearing of the LIBE inquiry into massive electronic surveillance, held on September 24. MEPs called on the Commission to suspend the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP), an agreement that allows for transfer of bank data (from the SWIFT database) to the US authorities for the fight against terrorism and terrorist financing.
Following these revelations, home affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström wrote to US under secretary David Cohen to ask for clarifications. However, on the day of the LIBE hearing she said she still had not received satisfactory response. According to Commissioner Malmström, if the allegations proved to be true, this would constitute a breach of the EU-US Terrorist Finance Tracking (TFTP), which could be then suspended.
However Blanche Petre, general counsel of SWIFT, present at the hearing, assured MEPs that they had no evidence to suggest that there has been any unauthorised access to the SWIFT network and to their database.
MEPs strongly stated that they consider US spying activities of EU’s citizens unacceptable and they are determined to suspend the agreement if they have evidence of a breach of the TFTP Agreement. They also considered a suspension of the Passenger Name Record Agreement – another controversial agreement that the EU-US concluded in 2012 (after 10 years of negotiations) to allow the transfers of personal data of EU citizens flying from and to the US to US Department of Homeland Security for counter terrorism purposes.
An impact assessment of the Safe Harbour, was also among the options discussed during this hearing.
MEPs disappointed by the report of the EU-US experts group.
To help the European Parliament in its investigation activities, last June the Commission and US Attorney General Eric Holder had agreed to set up a transatlantic group of experts that will discuss these issues more in detail and will look at the safeguards of EU’s citizens fundamental rights.
However, Those invited by the LIBE committee to give a report of the second meeting of the working group, Paul Nemitz (Director of Commission Justice Department) and Reinhard Priebe (Director of Commission Home Department), were not able to provide MEPs with concrete information. Apparently, the two Directors asked the US government to inform them about figures indicating how many EU citizens were surveilled or recorded, but they did not receive any data in this respect. Nemitz said that it’s an ongoing debate and that so far they did not receive “any further information that is not already on the news papers.”
Many MEPs – notably the chair of the hearing MEP Sophie In’t Veld (ALDE,NL) – expressed their disappointment for the loose information received, but also serious doubts about the usefulness of the whole operation, that so far has not provided the Parliament with any further/relevant evidence.
The impact of surveillance programmes on EU citizens
During the hearing, independent privacy advocate Caspar Bowden presented his report examining the impact of the massive surveillance revelations on EU citizens. He warned MEPs that “every single copy of personal data is a threat to the fundamental right to privacy”.
In his report, Bowden notes that there are no privacy rights recognised by US authorities for non-US persons under Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which has authorised programs like PRISM. Then he offered a number of recommendations on what the EU could do about them, such as:
- combining higher fines for those company that don’t comply with privacy law;
- reducing exposure of EU data to US interception and growing a European Cloud;
- ensuring whistleblowers protection through ad hoc law.
- reinstating ‘Article 42‘ in the Data Protection Regulation which addresses extra-territorial actions by third countries – such as the USA Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – and imposes barriers for foreign judicial authorities to access data of European citizens.
This is the 3rd of a series of hearing that the LIBE committee is holding in the context of its inquiry aimed to get more information about Snowden’s revelations and decide its course of actions.
This series of investigations are particularly timely since they started few months before the final vote of the LIBE committee on the Data Protection Regulation, which will take place on October 21 during the next plenary session in Strasbourg. This is also a golden opportunity for the European Parliament to speak out against the US unlawful and massive surveillance and set high standards for the protection of EU’s citizens.
During 4th LIBE hearing MEPs discussed the potential suspension of the EU-US trade talk, and how to ensure whistleblowers adequate protection. Read more about the LIBE hearings here.
LIBE Series Posts
Series 10 and 11: IT security of the EU institutions and discussions on mass surveillance
Series 7, 8, and 9: Violation of law, IntCen & mas surveillance in EU member states and freedom
Series 6: Safe Harbour under scrutiny by the European Parliament
Series 5: The “policy of empty seats” shakes Members of European Parliament
Series 4: Civil Society and former whistleblowers weigh in
Series 3: MEPs call for suspension of the counter terrorism cooperation with the US ally
Series 1 and 2: The European Parliament launches its investigation on extensive spying