EU Justice Chief Urges U.S. Privacy Deal to Repair Trust

The European Union’s justice chief said the U.S would win back lost trust amid spying scandals by granting EU citizens the right to sue U.S. agencies that violate their privacy rights.

A meeting of EU and U.S. government officials in Washington today must progress on this “fundamental issue” and come up with “concrete and enforceable rights, notably the right to judicial redress” in the U.S. for citizens from the 28-nation EU, Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said in a statement today.

“It is important that a European boarding a plane in Rome or searching the web from his home in Germany has a right of judicial redress in the U.S. whenever their personal data are being processed in the U.S.,” Reding said. An accord “will contribute to restoring trust in trans-Atlantic relations, which is of particular importance at this moment in time.”

Reding has urged the U.S. to boost its privacy rules or risk harming relations with the bloc in the wake of reports the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped on world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The EU and U.S. started talks in 2011 on a data protection agreement for cooperation to combat terrorism or crime. More than 15 negotiating rounds have failed to yield a deal, Reding said.

Meetings today with Attorney General Eric Holder and Rand Beers, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “will be an opportunity to advance in the negotiations,” the commission said.

U.S. Right

“Every U.S. citizen in the European Union already enjoys” the right to judicial redress “irrespective of whether he or she is resident in the EU,” said Reding. “But European citizens who are not resident in the U.S. do not enjoy this right.”

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem will also take part in today’s talks, as the bloc presses for clarification of the extent of U.S surveillance programs.

President Barack Obama’s administration and U.S. lawmakers have said they are open to placing restrictions on the NSA, including what kind of data it can collect, how its databases can be mined, the ability to eavesdrop on foreign leaders and requiring the agency to defend its requests against a privacy advocate before a secret intelligence court. Most of the spying was exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

No Wrongdoing

U.S. companies weren’t responsible for any wrongdoing when they handed over data to the NSA, Billy Hawkes, head of Ireland’s data protection authority, said at a data protection event in Trier, Germany, today.

The most controversial of Snowden’s revelations “are not the requests that come through the front door of these companies,” Hawkes said. “If it’s a secret intelligence service, they’re not going to ask the company” to hand over data. “They’re going to get it in some other way.”

The spying controversy come as the EU’s Reding struggles to win approval for separate proposals to bolster the EU’s privacy rules, including measures to foist tough constraints on U.S. tech companies.

The overhaul of that law could result in U.S.-based technology companies facing fines as high as 100 million euros ($135 million) for data-protection violations.

EU leaders last month bowed to U.K. demands for a slowdown in adoption of the data-protection law to consider the effect of the legislation on businesses, dropping the deadline in favor of a pledge to introduce the plans in “timely fashion.”

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