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Vice President of the European Commission, EU Commissioner for Justice
PRISM scandal: The data protection rights of EU citizens are non-negotiable
Press Conference, EU-U.S. Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial /Dublin
14 June 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As you know, earlier this week I sent a series of very detailed questions to Attorney General Holder about the media reports on the collection of data from Verizon and about the PRISM programme. How do these affect EU citizens right? Are they aimed at EU citizens? What is the volume of the data collected? Do the programmes involve bulk collection of data or is the collection targeted? Do the programmes operate under proper oversight of the judiciary? Is the collection of EU citizens' data authorised by a court? And how are European citizens protected, as compared to American citizens?
These questions matter very much for the EU and for our citizens.
The concept of national security does not mean that “anything goes”: States do not enjoy an unlimited right of secret surveillance. In Europe, also in cases involving national security, every individual – irrespective of their nationality – can go to a Court, national or European, if they believe that their right to data protection has been infringed. Effective judicial redress is available for Europeans and non-Europeans alike. This is a basic principle of European law.
I have been asking since a long time already and I continue to ask for full equal treatment of EU and U.S. citizens: Not more not less.
I have asked these very precise questions in the letter and I have asked them again today directly to my colleague. And I have been given answers and assurances. For me this is the beginning of a dialogue.
First, on the Verizon question, the information I received today is that it is a U.S. project, directed mainly towards U.S. citizens. It is about metadata, not about content. It is about bulk, not about individuals. And it is based on court orders and congressional oversight.
Having heard this, I consider that this is mainly an American question – if Eric Holder confirms this.
Considering PRISM, the U.S. answers to the questions I have raised were the following: It is about foreign intelligence threats.
PRISM is targeted at non-U.S. citizens under investigation on suspicion of terrorism and cybercrimes. So it is not about bulk data mining, but specific individuals or targeted groups. It is on the basis of a court order, of an American court, and of congressional oversight.
I hope that Eric Holder can confirm again to you what has been explained during our meeting. Because our assessment will depend on this confirmation on the basis of concrete facts.
For us Europeans, it is very essential that even if it is a national security issue it cannot be at the expense of EU citizens.
I have heard the explanations and reassurances and I made it clear that the basic rights of citizens are not negotiable. But that of course security is something governments have to take care of.
I welcome Attorney General Holder's proposal to convene, in the short-term, a meeting of experts from the U.S. and from the EU in order to clarify together the remaining matters – and I think there are remaining matters.
There are still questions to be answered, but this was a good first step – to speak eye to eye on questions which concern many European citizens.
The PRISM leaks have provoked, as you know, a wave of protest against surveillance and denial of privacy. President Obama has indicated that he is open to the debate. I agree. It is more necessary than ever.
Fundamentally, this is a question of trust. Trust of citizens towards their governments and to the governments of partner nations.
This is why I believe that the conclusion of the negotiations on the "Umbrella Agreement" on the exchange of data in the law enforcement sector is of fundamental importance, and it is urgent to make concrete progress. We have been negotiating – Eric Holder and myself – since 2011. There have been 15 negotiating rounds. But the fundamental issue has not yet been resolved.
A meaningful agreement has to ensure the full equal treatment of EU and U.S. citizens. A meaningful agreement has to give European citizens concrete and effective rights like access to justice. And a meaningful agreement has to ensure that law enforcement authorities access data through lawful channels of cooperation which do exist between the EU and the U.S.
Today, I call on the Attorney General to commit to finding solutions on these points, and to do this swiftly.
We need to conclude these negotiations soon, to give citizens' confidence – confidence that their rights are protected.
This will contribute to restoring trust. It is the basis of both our cooperation in the field of law enforcement and essential to the stability and growth of the digital economy.
And it will also be essential when we negotiate on a trade agreement, that we have trust at the basis of our discussions.