Earlier this week, European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding vented her fury over the US data spying program known as Prism. The far-reaching online surveillance operation, which saw the US National Security Agency spying on users across the globe, clearly demonstrates "that a clear legal framework for the protection of personal data is not a luxury, but is a fundamental right," Reding told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday.
Just two days later, however, it would seem that Reding was perhaps protesting a bit too much. According to both the Financial Times and Reuters, the European Commission bowed to US lobbying in early 2012 and scrapped a data protection measure that would have significantly reduced the NSA's ability to spy on Europeans.
According to the Financial Times report, which cites EU documents and unnamed EU officials, the measure was specifically designed to ward off US efforts to eavesdrop on international phone calls and emails. It was even called the "anti-FISA clause," a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Washington, however, launched a significant lobbying effort to get the Commission to remove the clause -- which it then did, partly in order to smooth the way ahead of talks on the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. "We didn't want any complications on this front," an EU official told the Financial Times.
The revelations come as Germany in particular continues to voice outrage at the breadth of the US Prism spying program . Earlier this week, German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger wrote in a contribution for SPIEGEL ONLINE that security does not justify such surveillance and that "all facts must be put on the table." She has also reportedly sent a letter to US Attorney General Eric Holder asked for an explanation of the "legal foundation for this program and its applications," according to excerpts published by the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday.
Problem for Free Trade Agreement?
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert added that Prism would definitely be on the agenda when US President Barack Obama visits Berlin next week. Obama is likewise almost certain to be grilled by journalists in the German capital at a joint press conference he plans to hold with Merkel.
In addition, the mass-circulation tabloid Bild Zeitung reported on Thursday that the German Interior Ministry has sent a list of questions to the US Embassy demanding to know whether German citizens were spied on as part of the Prism program and whether data from German companies headquartered in Germany was accessed.
Reding was opposed to the Commission scrapping the data protection measure in early 2012 and has made data protection a focus of her term in office. This week, she too has demanded more information on the program from Washington. According to a Wednesday report from Reuters, the justice commissioner sent a letter to US Attorney General Holder in which she writes: "I would request that you provide me with explanations and clarifications on the Prism program, other US programs involving data collection and search, and laws under which such programs may be authorized."
Ironically, it is the EU's discarded data protection measure -- and the resulting Prism scandal -- that could now hinder negotiations over the trans-Atlantic trade agreement. With formal talks sent to kick off next month, the EU is considering adding data protection to the list of talking points. European companies are concerned that without adequate protection measures, technologies such as cloud computing -- because most of the servers are in the US -- will not take off in Europe out of concern that Washington will have easy access to that information. "The storage of the data in the foreign servers and related uncertainty constitutes a real impediment," an unnamed Commission official told Reuters.