EU justice commissioner on Prism: EU citizens' rights are not negotiable

An EU-US committee will be set up to look into Prism's activities with regard to the EU

By Jennifer Baker, IDG News Service |  Security

Europe's justice commissioner will not sacrifice European citizens' rights for U.S. national security, she said Friday.

Commissioner Viviane Reding spoke after meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after sending him a long list of questions regarding the U.S. data collection and surveillance scandal. She is responsible for the European Union's data protection laws.

The collection and analysis of cellphone metadata from Verizon is directed mainly at U.S. citizens, she said after the meeting, and so she is satisfied that no further action is needed from an E.U. point of view. However, Reding said that there are outstanding questions on the scope of Prism, the Internet data collection and surveillance system revealed in leaks to The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers last week.

Despite welcoming plans to set up a committee of experts from both sides of the Atlantic, Reding said that "the concept of national security does not mean that 'anything goes': States do not enjoy an unlimited right of secret surveillance."

Holder informed Reding that Prism is targeted at those under investigation for terrorism or cybercrimes and not bulk data mining, but Reding said she still wants confirmation of "concrete facts."

Reding was more outspoken than her Home Affairs counterpart, Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who was also at the meeting with Holder in Dublin.

"Our U.S. friends have given us today their view on the nature and the safeguards that apply to these programs. I am happy to say that the U.S. have understood our concerns and are ready to provide us with relevant information on this sensitive issue," Malmström said.

However, Reding has been attempting to reach an "umbrella agreement" with the U.S. on the exchange of data in the law enforcement sector since 2011 and is frustrated that after 15 negotiating rounds, "the fundamental issue has not yet been resolved."

Reding called on the U.S. to resolve the sticking points -- full equal treatment of E.U. and U.S. citizens with concrete rights and effective access to justice. U.S. negotiators are reluctant to concede any new rights to E.U. citizens, according to Commission sources.

But Reding said Friday that negotiations must be concluded soon. The planned trade negotiations on TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) must be on the basis of trust, she further warned.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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