BRUSSELS — European Union lawmakers took aim at the United States today for its recently revealed data snooping program, attacking Washington for treating its European allies as “foreigners” who are legitimate targets for surveillance.
The four major groups at the legislature all condemned the U.S. programs and the EU’s top justice official said she will confront U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on whether U.S. services are vetting data of EU citizens and companies, and will insist on the fundamental respect of rights.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding she will be seeking clear commitments during Friday’s trans-Atlantic ministerial that EU citizens will be granted the same rights as U.S. residents when it comes to data protection.
The parliament held an emergency debate today in Strasbourg, with lawmakers widely criticizing the programs as unworthy of a close ally.
Socialist leader Hannes Swoboda said in the margins of the debate that they were “violations of the spirit of all the agreements we have with the United States.”
“It means that America is not bound by agreement but is just doing what it wants,” said the Austrian lawmaker.
Dutch liberal Sophie in’t Veld said it was unacceptable for the 500 million EU citizens that “a foreign nation has unlimited access to every intimate detail of their private lives. This is a very big issue,” she said.
U.S. President Obama has defended the once-secret programs that sweep up to an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day and amass Internet data from U.S. providers, saying they are a necessary defense against terrorism. He assured Americans last week that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”
Those domestic assurances failed to put Europeans at ease, who saw the hunt for foreign data continuing unbridled. “Foreigners. So that’s us. That’s European citizens,” In’t Veld said.
Lawmakers complained that the EU has been a steadfast ally in the fight against terrorism, making the revelations about the snooping programs even worse, especially the perceived double standard regarding foreigners.
“It is completely unacceptable that the United States has different rules governing access to personal data applicable to U.S. citizens on one hand and citizens of other countries on the other hand,” said Germany’s Manfred Weber of the EPP Christian Democrat group, the biggest in the legislature.
European nations often have much stricter privacy laws than those in the U.S., and their citizens defend those privacy rights with more vigor.
The uproar in Europe underscores the value attributed to an individual’s privacy and an inherent suspicion of government having too much personal information.
In’t Veld said the issue had come up before, when the European Parliament expressed concern in the late 1990s that the U.S.-run ECHELON surveillance program could be used for industrial espionage.
The EU is in the process of improving and tightening its data protection rules, but progress has been particularly slow under the pressure of trans-Atlantic lobbying to keep it business-friendly.
“Now, I understand even more why the Americans are so pushy on influencing the data protection package,” Swoboda said. “Yeah, it is good for business but it is also good for American institutions who want to use and look into the data.”
One way around it, Weber of the EPP argued was to create fully independent computing.
“We need the European cloud,” Weber said. “Then we can guarantee to our companies and citizens that this data is being stored and secured according to EU standards.”
Outside the EU, Norway also said today that it wants answers from Washington.
“That which has emerged through the media is of such character that we have requested an answer from American authorities to what this is and how it affects Norwegian citizens,” Torgeir Larsen at the Norwegian Foreign Ministry told newspaper Aftenposten.