European Leaders Respond to “NSA Reform”

Data protection and privacy, rights contained in Article 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, have often triggered differences of opinions and policies between the US and Europe. The recent disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden did little to help. Following months of resulting controversy, President Barack Obama committed to reforming the NSA in a speech on Jan. 17.

Among the many mass surveillance practices that were revealed was that the NSA had been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone and that the American Embassy in Berlin was a platform to monitor communications of other high-ranking German politicians.

These recent NSA revelations caused Europe’s lack of trust in US data protection regulations to resurface. The European Parliament, the European Commission, and EU Member States welcomed Obama’s speech on the importance of better safeguards for data protection, albeit with scepticism regarding what changes would actually occur.

Claude Moraes, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the inquiry into mass surveillance and author of the draft report on the NSA surveillance program, appreciated that the US was addressing Europe’s concerns. However, Moraes called for a firm commitment from the US to finalize a EU-US umbrella agreement on data transfer and put an end to “current discrimination whereby European citizens have lower levels of privacy rights than US citizens.”

Jan-Phillip Albrecht, the German MEP who is advocating for tighter rules on the transfer of data to the US, deemed Obama’s initiative insufficient, arguing that “mass surveillance will continue. That is why it is important for Europe to keep up the pressure on the US and make clear that data security is an important asset for every EU citizen.”

On the other hand, the European Commission’s response seemed much more receptive to the promised reforms. Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, said that she is  “encouraged to see that non-US citizens stand to benefit from spying safeguards.” At the same time, she carefully underlined the need for legislative action, keeping in line with the official EC position that reminds the US of the work yet to be done.

As Merkel had been personally affected by NSA policies, her response to Obama’s speech was highly anticipated. Her spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, said Germany welcomes the fact that the protection of data and personal rights of non-US citizens will be taken into consideration in the future. Obama later sought to put fears regarding NSA intelligence to rest by saying in an interview on German TV that the German Chancellor would be safe from further spying.

However, Norbert Röttgen, a former Christian Democratic Union (CDU) environment minister who is now a foreign policy advisor, told ZDF, a German television network, that Obama had failed to meet even his lowest expectations. In his opinion, the changes presented by Obama were merely technicalities and avoided the transatlantic disagreement over the balance between security and freedom.

The United Kingdom’s response was surprisingly refreshing. While the rest of Europe was content to let the US assume responsibility for its blunder and avoid discussing its own shortcomings in data protection matters, a source close to the deputy prime-minister, Nick Clegg, said that the US is having a more open debate on surveillance than the UK does.

Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, an NGO that advocates for civil liberties and transparency in the UK, similarly stated that the failure of laws to keep up with the pace of technological development is a common problem in the US and the UK. For him, the US is an example to be followed because it is seeking to reform its system, while Britain needs to pursue “judicial oversight by courts and greater transparency by the government and companies.”

The NSA has stated that they would no longer longer indiscriminately review data, collect data for the purposes of suppressing dissent, target people for surveillance based on their ethnic or religious background, and use the data collected to give American companies a competitive advantage. Obama has also asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder to develop similar safeguards for foreign citizens. These safeguards would include more detail on the length of time for which the government can retain information and restrictions on how they can use it.

Europe has yet to see definitive results following Obama’s promise that the US will start to balance security and freedom, especially in the area of privacy rights. It has welcomed the initiative and looks forward to future action. At the same time, European citizens are still subject to EU and member states surveillance; just because no one has leaked classified information about European intelligence gathering does not mean that Europe has a clean record. Hopefully, Europe welcoming changes in the US will cause Europe to look to reform its own surveillance policies.

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  1. […] European leaders respond to “NSA reform”. Data protection and privacy, rights contained in Article 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, have often triggered differences of opinions and policy between the US and Europe. The recent disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden did little to help. Following months controversy, President Barack Obama committed to reforming the NSA in a speech on January 17. […]

  2. […] a European communication network that would keep out the US. Germany has been pushing the issue of data protection in Europe ever since the NSA scandal first broke. Following revelations that Merkel’s phone had […]

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