Jun 28 2008

NY Times: US and Europe Near Agreement on Data Sharing

The New York Times has obtained a report showing that US and European negotiators are nearing an agreement on international sharing of private data.

The United States and the European Union are nearing completion of an agreement allowing law enforcement and security agencies to obtain private information — like credit card transactions, travel histories and Internet browsing habits — about people on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. […]

Negotiators, who have been meeting since February 2007, have largely agreed on draft language for 12 major issues central to a “binding international agreement,” the report said. The pact would make clear that it is lawful for European governments and companies to transfer personal information to the United States, and vice versa.

The negotiators remain at odds on some issues, such as “what rights European citizens will have if the United States government violates data privacy rules or takes an adverse action against them — like denying them entry into the country or placing them on a no-fly list — based on incorrect personal information.”

It is unclear what standards both sides believe would adequately protect individuals’ civil liberties, including free speech and the right to travel.

David Sobel, a senior counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to data-privacy rights, said the administration’s depiction of the process of correcting mishandled data through agency procedures sounds “very rosy,” but the reality is that it is often impossible, even for American citizens, to win such a fight.

The story refers to transfers of data directly from entities in the the EU to the US government, and that’s where most of the attention has focused in recent EU/US disputes.  But in many cases, data is first transferred from the EU to commercial entities in the US (for example, from airline and travel agency offices in the EU to computerized reservation systems in the US) and only later, if at all, accessed by the US government from those US commercial entities.  Those commercial transfers violate EU data protection law, regardless of whether the US government also accesses the data.  It’s unclear form the Times story if the draft agreement would purport to immunize commerical entities engaging in such transfers.

It’s also unclear if the draft “agreement” would take the form of a treaty — ratified by the U.S. Senate, and enforceable in U.S. courts — or whether it would be another nonbinding DHS “undertaking” without legal effect.

The full New York Times story is here.

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