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Europe risks becoming "surveillance society", warns EU data watchdog By Daniela Schroeder

dpa German Press Agency | October 24 2006

Europeans risk coming under permanent surveillance, if European Union governments continue to meet US demands for access to personal data on their nationals, the EU's data watchdog has warned. A recent transatlantic deal on sending key European air passenger data to authorities in the United States "is a slippery slope which shows a lot of ambiguity and leaves room for much interpretation," European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx said in an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Hustinx, who monitors the processing of personal data by EU institutions, has the power to take cases of privacy infringements to the EU Court of Justice, the bloc's top legal body.

As the data protection supervisor, he acts independently of EU institutions and gives governments and EU bodies advice on security standards.

Europeans did not want a so-called "surveillance society," said Hustinx, warning the EU against gradually giving up privacy rights "because once you have given them up, you are not going to get them back."

The EU and the US earlier this month agreed on an interim accord which allows intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the CIA and the FBI, to share and study European citizens' data more easily.

Under the pact, European air carriers are obliged to give US authorities up to 34 pieces of information on each passenger aboard America-bound flights. The data includes credit card numbers, travel itineraries, addresses and telephone numbers.

Brussels says that under the new deal, citizens' privacy rights are fully protected, arguing that Washington had given guarantees on how the data would be used and by whom.

But Hustinx said that the safeguards were either inadequate or left room for much interpretation: "What is the purpose of the whole exercise, what are the data used for? What is the storage time? Is it done on a case-by-case basis or routinely so?"

Digital checks done before people cross borders must have "sufficient focus and proportionality plus adequate safeguards," Hustinx said, adding: ""There are certain systems that don't seem to match that."

The EU and the US will soon be back at the negotiating table for a permanent pact to be in place by next July. Hustinx said that the bloc was already facing "a larger scope of data exchanges with diminishing detail" which left little bargaining room for a new deal.

Washington demands the data from European airlines as part of heightened security measures after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The US has called for more data sharing, claiming that European privacy concerns had unreasonably hampered its counter-terrorism activities in the past few years.

Hustinx said that the US and the EU differed essentially in their perceptions about privacy. While the US was showing a "just-in-case approach", seeking to avoid risks by obtaining and analysing as much data as possible, Europe was trying to come up with proportionate measures.

"Society needs to be safe but if we give up safeguards we're not sure that this will add to our security," Hustinx said. "In the end we will not feel more secure because we are being monitored all the time."

"The new member states have not become members of the EU to experience what they experienced before," he stressed.

If monitoring international traffic meant that people walking on the street "could be identified and arrested for things presumed to be true then that reminds us of old times."

People who filled out a loyalty card from their local supermarket or gave away personal data on the internet, were doing so voluntarily. But they had no choice when dealing with data demands by governments, in particular with foreign ones, Hustinx said.

He also said that a controversial scheme to give bank transactions to US officials investigating terror financing had raised the question of how far national governments could be trusted.

Since the September 11 attacks, the Belgium-based banking consortium Swift has given US authorities access to its database. Swift is overseen by the European Central Bank.

"Every transaction monitored - is this the society we want to live in?" Hustinx asked, adding: "If this is an acceptable situation, is it an approach that EU governments would copy, and if so, could we trust these institutions?"

Swift rejected criticism that it has violated EU privacy rights, saying it had received strong US assurances that the data would be used exclusively for terrorism investigations.

With the EU and the US increasingly at odds over how to reconcile civil liberties with the US-led fight against terrorism, the bloc needed new rules which could give a "guiding light in all these difficult issues in the near future," Hustinx said.

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