EU votes to support suspending U.S. data sharing agreements, including passenger flight data

The European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution that would back the Commission should it wish to suspend data sharing agreements with the U.S., such as the passenger name records system, in light of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 07.05.15
Image: European Parliament via live broadcast

The European Parliament on Thursday adopted a joint, cross-party resolution to begin investigations into widespread surveillance of Europeans by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

In the vote, 483 voted for the resolution, 98 against, and 65 abstained on a vote that called on the U.S. to suspend and review any laws and surveillance programs that "violate the fundamental right of EU citizens to privacy and data protection," as well as Europe's "sovereignty and jurisdiction."

The vote also gave backing to the suspension of data sharing deals between the two continents, should the European Commission take action against its U.S. ally.

Thursday's plenary session highlights the strained diplomatic relationship between the EU and the U.S. over recent revelations that came to light in June.

The U.S. government faces continued criticism and pressure from its international allies following news that its intelligence agencies spied on foreign nationals under its so-called PRISM program. The U.K. government was also embroiled in the NSA spying saga, after its signals intelligence intercepting station GCHQ tapped submarine fiber optic cables under its own secret program, code named Tempora.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that the Commission is examining whether the U.K. broke EU law, which could lead to fines imposed by the highest court in Europe.

British MEP Sarah Ludford told ZDNet in an emailed statement: "There is no doubt that the U.S. needs to answer some difficult questions with regard to its huge spying operations in Europe," adding: "But refusing to even start trade talks with the U.S. that could bring up to 400,000 jobs in the U.K. alone would be economically irresponsible, and not assist the EU's efforts in protecting the privacy of its citizens."

Thursday's vote also expressed "concern" about other EU member states' involvement, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, in similar surveillance programs.

Suspend air travel if it helps, says Parliament

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in a plenary session in Strasbourg voted in favor of a section of the resolution that called on the Commission to "give consideration to all the instruments at their disposal in discussions and negotiations with the U.S. [...] including the possible suspension of the passenger name record (PNR) and terrorist finance tracking program (TFTP) agreements."

Should the Commission decide it necessary to suspend the data sharing agreement of passenger details — including personal and sensitive individual data — it could ultimately lead to the grounding of flights between the EU and the U.S.

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld said in a statement after the vote: "We must consider now if the PNR and SWIFT agreements are still tenable in the circumstances."

Critics say PNR data has never helped catch a suspected criminal or terrorist before. SWIFT data sharing, which provides U.S. authorities with secure banking details in a bid to crack down on terrorist financing, could also be suspended.

A spokesperson for the D66 delegation in Brussels confirmed by email that the English version of the joint motion is "the right one and is leading," despite claims that there were "translation error[s]" between the different versions of the joint resolution.

An EU source familiar with proceedings confirmed that the Commission now has the authority from the Parliament to suspend PNR and TFTP, but it falls at the Commission's discretion. Resolutions passed by the Parliament are not legally binding, but give backing to the Commission should the executive body wish to enact measures against a foreign power or entity.

A Commission spokesperson confirmed that there are "no deadlines" on deciding whether it will follow up on the Parliament's resolution.

ZDNet has put in questions to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, whose department oversees EU-U.S. agreements, such as PNR, TFTP, and SWIFT, but did not hear back at the time of writing. (If we hear back, we will update the piece.)

EU-U.S. trade talks to go ahead

The Parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee was given the authority by Thursday's vote to set up an inquiry to gather evidence from both U.S. and EU sources to assess the impact of the surveillance activities on EU citizens' fundamental right to privacy and data protection.

The Committee will present its conclusions in a resolution by the end of this year.

Another amendment sought to resolve the European political asylum status of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked a number of classified documents to the media relating to the NSA's activities. The amendment was rejected by the Parliament, all but ruling out the EU assisting the whistleblower in his legal battle with the U.S.

In 't Veld added in her comments: "In a democratic state, whistleblowers breaking the law to expose illegal acts by governments should be protected by law against the wrath of governments. Democracies dispense justice, not revenge."

MEPs also voted to reject a number of amendments that specifically called for the suspension in Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) discussions. Three similar amendments in total were shot down by parliamentarians.

The TTIP agreement is worth billions of dollars for both the U.S. and EU economies, and has "nothing to do with the spying allegations, and, therefore, can not easily be put at risk," said European People's Party spokesperson Daniel Caspary in a statement (German).

President of the Commission José Manuel Barroso said on Wednesday: "Negotiations on TTIP are and will remain top priority."

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