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EU justice chief: not convinced Europe needs to share bank data with US anti-terror probes

Thu, 01/28/2010 - 8:01am
Aoife White@ - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS@ - Associated Press

The European Union's new justice chief said Thursday that she is not convinced that European governments' transfer of personal banking data to U.S. authorities is necessary or effective in the fight against terrorism.

The EU must this year renegotiate a controversial agreement to hand over huge amounts of information on Europeans' banking transactions that the U.S. says has given it some key leads in terrorist investigations.

Viviane Reding, who will become the EU's justice commissioner next month, also criticized moves to use body scanners more widely at airports, saying they could invade personal privacy and were not proven to be useful or safe for personal health.

She called for a full impact assessment on their use, saying she could not imagine "this privacy intrusive technology being imposed on us" otherwise.

Reding also hinted that the EU would likely take a tougher approach on travel information that governments share — such as air passenger data handed over to the U.S.

She said international agreements must "be based on evidence rather than emotional responses to the latest scare" and that data privacy rights should be respected when people transfer money, book a flight ticket or pass an airport security check.

Reding said she would look "very seriously and very closely" at an EU deal to share banking information with the U.S., saying she wasn't convinced that it was "necessary, proportionate and effective to fight terrorism."

The European Parliament will next month vote on the agreement — and could scupper data-sharing, if the legislators oppose a temporary deal that EU governments want in place for nine months while they negotiate a fuller and longer-term accord with the U.S.

Such a deal would formalize a secret program launched in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that skirted Europe's strict privacy rules. It did that by transferring millions of pieces of personal information from the U.S. offices of the bank transfer company SWIFT to American authorities.

Since news of the U.S. anti-terror program broke in 2006 — angering European legislators — American authorities have promised that the information it collects from the databases is properly protected and used only in anti-terror probes.

The new EU justice commissioner also told a European Parliament conference that privacy rights needed to be respected when police and prosecutors share data.

Reding promised an overhaul of EU data privacy rules to respond to the rapid development of new technologies and evolving security threats. She said that would clarify laws on personal consent to the use of the data and transparency on what would be done with such information.

She warned that a company or government collecting data would have to assure its safety — wherever in the world they are based. That could impose some changes on U.S.-based Internet companies such as the search engine Google Inc. or social networking site Facebook.

"The demand for personal data is not only growing today, it's going to continue to grow massively and that is why also our determination to reinforce the rights of individuals over the use of their personal data has to grow in the same way," she said.

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