EU 'assessing U.S. relationship' amid PRISM spying claims

EU 'assessing U.S. relationship' amid PRISM spying claims

Summary: In a letter obtained by ZDNet, the EU justice chief hints at consequences to come for the U.S. government if European citizens were targeted by the NSA's PRISM program.

TOPICS: Security, EU
The U.S. National Security Agency, which has been at the center of a privacy storm, after details of its PRISM program leaked. The EU is examining its relationship with its partner across the pond. (Image: NSA)

The EU's justice chief has warned of the "grave adverse consequences" for the rights of EU citizens in light of the PRISM leak, which revealed the mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency.

Several EU member state governments have also been dragged into the claims that they tapped into the PRISM program in order to spy on their own citizens, including the U.K. government and the Dutch government.

Read this

PRISM: Here's how the NSA wiretapped the Internet

PRISM: Here's how the NSA wiretapped the Internet

The National Security Agency's "PRISM" program is able to collect, in realtime, intelligence not limited to social networks and email accounts. But the seven tech companies accused of opening 'back doors' to the spy agency could well be proven innocent.

ZDNet has obtained a copy of a letter sent by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder from a European source, who declined to be named. 

Reding's letter, dated June 10, which contains some sternly worded language, states that she has "serious concerns" about the reports that U.S. authorities are accessing EU citizens' data through U.S. companies.

"The respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law are the foundations of the EU-US relationship. This common understanding has been, and must remain, the basis of cooperation between us in the area of Justice," she said.

Citing an earlier meeting between U.S. and EU diplomats in June 2012, Reding and Holder discussed the "scope of U.S. legislation," including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Patriot Act.

"It can lead to European companies being required to transfer data to the US in breach of EU and national law," Reding said. She warned that the two governments have existing "formal channels," such as mutual legal assistance (MLA), which allows one government to ask another for formal help while outside their jurisdiction. 

ZDNet covered in 2011 the scope of FISA, which was amended by the Patriot Act in 2011, which could be invoked on a U.S.-based company to bypass the MLA treaties between the U.S. and EU member states to acquire data on citizens under the radar.

Reding said in reply to questions by Dutch member of the European Parliament (MEP) Sophie in 't Veld in 2012 that there was not enough clarity in the existing 1995 Data Protection Directive to determine whether or not this could happen.

She confirmed it would be up to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to rule on the transatlantic legal dispute.

Further into the letter, Reding explained that the MLA treaties exist for a reason and should not be bypassed by other legislation.

"I must underline that these formal channels should be used to the greatest possible extent, while direct access of U.S. law enforcement authorities to the data of EU citizens on servers of US companies should be excluded unless in clearly defined, exceptional and judicially reviewable situations."

EU sources in Brussels with their ears to the ground, in speaking to ZDNet under the condition of anonymity, warned that the tension in the European Parliament is rising amid these U.S. spying revelations, which were first outed by The Guardian last week. Some fear that this could lead to a proposal that could suspend data-sharing agreements with the U.S. until this matter is resolved at a diplomatic level.

These concerns could see MEPs vote on the suspension of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor agreement, which allows data to flow between the two continents under the premise that receiving U.S. companies will treat the European data as if it was still within the EU.

In Reding's letter, she confirmed that the Safe Harbor scheme is currently under review in the EU legislative process.

A European Commission spokesperson confirmed that current agreements will need to be reviewed and most likely aligned with the new data protection rules, once they are brought into force.

The spokesperson did not comment on if the Commission knew about PRISM before it was revealed last week.

In following up, it's not clear if individual companies, such as the seven named technology giants in the PRISM scandal, would be revoked or if the entire agreement could be suspended. Either way, the political and economic ramifications could be massive. 

Should this "worst case scenario" happen (it would not be an overnight thing and MEPs would be under pressure from their EU member states to avoid such sanctions), it would likely have a far greater effect on Europeans than it would on the United States. 

"Cutting off the nose to spite the face," springs to mind.

And, considering the U.S. Passenger Name Records (PNR) system (which allows the U.S. government to screen European passengers before they enter the U.S.) relies on data sharing between the two continents, theoretically should these agreements be suspended, it could leave Europeans temporarily unable to fly into the U.S. 

Reding concluded her letter:

As you know, the European Commission is accountable before the European Parliament, which is likely to assess the overall trans-Atlantic relationship also in the light of your responses.

The fact of the matter is that the European Commission can't do much about PRISM except enact legislation that counters the effects of transatlantic spying.

And, even if the Commission — not just EU member states — knew about it before that infamous PowerPoint deck was leaked, the EU doesn't have an intelligence agency, per se. Its member states do, and some may share snippets of intelligence with their European member state counterparts, and some with the Commission, but it's not mandatory or even expected.

Holder and Reding will meet in Dublin on Friday to discuss the matter, as part of a scheduled gathering of politicians.

Topics: Security, EU

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  • This is about a meaningful of a threat as when..

    I tell my buddy that I'm gonna kick his arse if he drinks my last beer.
  • EC should shut up

    and improve the cooperation by increasing the data flow to NSA, since we are protectim them from dangers.
    LlNUX Geek
    • +1

      First time I am agreeing with you. :)
      Ram U
    • Or maybe

      the Fed should start obeying the Bill of Rights and their treaties with the EU nations.

      NSA is completely in the wrong and EVERYONE has a right to be mad.
  • Cold and distant

    It's funny how everything I've ever learned about the NSA comes from "chance" news like this article. In other words, the NSA is this cold and distant object that doesn't make me feel good about it's purpose and relevance to my life as a US citizen. The NSA isn't integrated into my community like my church or doctors office. The NSA, and most other federal government agencies, are not concerned about becoming close knit into my citizenship except by stealth and arrogance. Nowhere have they come into my town and schools and set forth what it is they can provide for me and my community while giving themselves relevance. In truth, Americans are blind and unaware of this because of the distance and meaninglessness of it and other apparati employed by this nation. Does anyone else see this?
    • .

      I leant the NSA was bad by watching stargate....

      who says tv teaches you nothing....
  • So is the EU going to impose a "browser ballot" on the NSA?

    I know...bad pun! Couldn't resist's been a tough few weeks in my area, so bear with me! A little humor is sometimes just the prescription!
  • Meh americans

    Some ridiculous comments here, europe has 731 million people across 48 countries, america has 314 million people, combined nominal gdp in 2010 of europe is higher then the usa by a more than notable degree, in addition to more money, we have the highest living standards in the world, better healthcare, 5 of the top 10 countries in world's economies exist in europe and so and so forth, America's economy is considerable mostly due to its vast natural resources, combined with the vast sums it absorbed from the old british empire through 2 world wars, before it died from financial wounds and changing times completely after WWII.

    Its far more likely that the stronger party europe would be protecting the weaker party america from dangers then the other way around.

    America is not the foremost protector of the world, it just thinks it is, not is it the foremost power anymore, im afraid that's now china, when you started owing cash for everything you got you lost that accolade, americans have the ridiculous concept that they are the foremost in everything, it comes from an incredibly introverted outlook, and an over-zealous sense of patriotism, sure love your country and all but americans take it to far, and as a result just come off obnoxious and arrogant to the rest of the world.

    And its a pitty all your much vaunted rights and unique democracy seem to have failed to protect you against the excesses of your own government, who seem to have decided to save the terrorists the trouble of ruining your freedoms by pre-emptively beating them to it, and from having one of the worst healthcare services in the developed world, which charge nie double per person to what say the UK's nhs provides (which btw is not the best in the world either, but close and far superior nonetheless), and when your goverment finally decided to no longer be sending old grannies into to the street in nightgowns dropped of in the middle of nowhere by taxi's because they dont have medical insurance, half of your country decided to demonize the guy responsible for such a travesty, and equate him to the devil for being so evil as to actually give a shit if your fellow citizens live or die... The fact your doctors charge so ridiculously much is your own fault in addition, such things prove america as a whole has no sense of morality, or if it has one, its warped at best.

    As a result european citizens aren't to pleased to be drip feeding our information to a people who's morals are so low they could hop under a on the floor barrel with a top hat on, whose politicians accept massive bribes on a daily basis while no one bats an eyelid, whose judges pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be elected for privilege, whose laws are controlled primarily by lobby groups, and despite being aware of all this, whose people are so thick they still haven't worked out that it ceased being the best place to live in the world back when Roosevelt died (a man who btw wanted to introduce a national health service to the USA) by the time the puppet reagan and has bank master's had finished has been getting steadily worse year on year, and rather then doing anything about fixing it, your politicians and their supports, which seem to be about 49.9% of the us population per side, would rather insult each other and block any attempt by the other side to do anything positive about it in attempt to claim the credit for any benefit or prevent credit accruing to the other side, and whose efforts are of course equally and oppositely blocked by the other side regardless, so neither of you achieve anything but a whole load of time wasting, whilst your country dips even further into the figurative sea of feces before you.

    America is just another country, it has its benefits and its downsides, and if you wish to operate worldwide, you WILL respect other countries laws, as we don't need you, you need us, everything you once exclusively made, china now makes to, and are only to happy to provide, hell it come out the same factory as the ones you sell, so why exactly do we still need you?, cant think of a reason.
    • Meh U.S.A

      I totally agree, With everything you've said Xanderxavier.
      Matt Holmes
    • Great, let EU shut out the US

      I'm looking forward to the day the EU asks the US to remove it's military EU. The US spends too much money protecting the EU when clearly they are capable of doing it themselves. Also I think there should be an extra charge paid by EU citizens for medical care in the US.
      Jeff Richardson
      • lol

        Europe would be fine with america withdrawing its entire military force, we neither require no particularly desire your presence, the american military bases in europe are a rollover from the end of WWII and the cold war, which has no real place in the modern world, america maintains these bases for its own benefit and prestige since the wall fell.

        Truth be told, eu was in dire straight after wwii, which for the most part was a war between european powers, the america/japanese war was in many ways a separate war with the japanese taking advantage of the turbulent times to seize more land, if europe wasnt at war with each other, the british of the time would have handily handed the japanese there heads, as its navy was still pretty considerable, if it had allied with france and germany against them, which was likely unncessary it would have been with laughable ease.

        Europe ruined itself during WWII, and spent the next 40 years recovering, the primary issue with europe today, though there are many is whilst no one wants to go to war with other countries within it anymore, is the sense of identity problem, ie no one particularly feels "european" as denizens of american states which in many ways are countries in their own right, feel like citizens of america.

        Every european feels like a member of their own country 1st and foremost, and does not think of themselves as a european citizen, this lack of identity prevents cohesian imagine if you will from an american point of view a senate with no president or goverment behind it, just squabbling delegates from each "state" seeking the best for their own state, at the expense of the others, as a result europe has a serious cohesian problem, additionally european citizens feel very disconnected from the european parliment possessing very little sway over it in any way shape or form, whilst in truth they hold little sway over the processes of their own countries democracies they at least feel that they do, but european parliament is set up very poorly for identifying with the people it purports to represent, and yet decrees and laws every bit as strong as those from their own governments come out of it for eu members.

        As a result all the average eu citizen hears of the eu is the latest law or regulation as its handed down from on high with little to no say in the matter, and with already having to put up with such things from their own governments having one more full of foreigners that the governments themselves often use as a scapegoat for their own misgivings makes it all the more socially acceptable to blame it for all their ills, the stronger the sense of national identity the worse this problem gets, like for instance in the United Kingdom of today, leaving the eu will provide no tangible benefit for the average citizen, and would merely be an exercise in pointless isolationism, yet its gained traction due to a prevalence of frankly ignorance on all the issues involved among the average population combined with convenient scapegoats of the eu when anything goes wrong among politicians, and the average politician being of a different generation to the ordinary working denizens of the nation hardly helps.

        However europe ignoring the whole eu side of it combined is pretty strong, there already is a special charge for medical care in the US, its called american greed, which is why your medical costs you twice the amount of what it would cost you in europe, which means whenever on holiday in america eu citizens have to pay twice the amount it would cost for private health insurance of anyone else in the world, not to mention EU citizens with an eu health card can get healthcare from any country in europe proper charge free, with the cost recouped at a governmental level at a later date.

        and Feel free to send you military home, we could use the land for new housing developments :D
        • Pleae, remind us WHERE the two previous

          "World Wars" began? Yeah, that's what I thought...
          Europe! I'm sure a lot of Americans would rather not
          waste more financial resources on such ingrates as you. Next time two or more of your countries decide to kill another's monarch or invade some European country, just handle it yourself, and don't ask for help from American industry or military.
          • Sorry but you don't get credit

            For your great grandparents' accomplishments. Their America helped save Europe... Yours did not.

            Quite the contrary, European soldiers have been dying in Afghanistan for YOUR country.
      • go for it!

        I find it insulting, while traveling in Germany to see all those road signs pointing at US military bases. Germany is still occupied by the US. Which is ironic, as the "bad" ex-USSR military forces are long gone from Europe. They apparently had both the courage and the morale to do so.

        I always wonder, are those who rule the US so insecure, so that they need to waste their citizens lives in all this war and spy games?
        • Do you know what the "Flag" is for a comment?

          Or are you just in the habit of flagging everyone you happen to have a difference of opinion with? Flag is used to mark spam comments, threats, inappropriate language and off-topic remarks.
  • EU? Seriously?

    Be it banking disclosure laws, air traveller info, etc., etc. -- has the EU ever not agree to US demands? This time won't be any different. US bureaucrats will keep "ssuring" -- and EU bureaucrats will acquiesce and feel like they have done their job. End of story.
    • Oops...

      "ssuring" --> "assuring".
  • NSA - KGB

    U.S. behaves like former Soviet Union. No one trusts U.S. (anymore).