Swift privacy concerns aired as MEPs debate new EU-US data transfer deal

Source: European Parliament

Various issues must be resolved before Parliament approves the next EU-US agreement on financial data transfers via the SWIFT network, argued many MEPs in a debate on SWIFT on Wednesday.

The key points are transfers of "bulk data" and redress where personal data is misused. On transfers of air passengers data to the US and Australia, EPP, S&D and ALDE members spoke in favour of postponing the vote until the Commission presents the newly-announced "PNR package".

The EP rejected the last SWIFT agreement in February, which is why a new agreement has to be negotiated. The European Commission aims to have it signed before the end of June. When rejecting the previous agreement, MEPs strongly criticised the fact that it allowed transfers of data not only on specific suspects but on large numbers of people "in bulk". Citizens' rights over their own personal data, notably rights of access, rectification, compensation and redress, were also not adequately defined.

"There will be a vote in favour of the draft mandate proposed by the Commission" in Council, said Spanish Presidency representative Diego López Garrido. The agreement "will need to incorporate sufficient guarantees and safeguards". He added that those guarantees would be applied without discrimination between EU and US citizens. The agreement would probably have a five-year term. As for "bulk data" transfers, "this principle will need to be maintained for technical and efficiency reasons". Mr López Garrido also confirmed Council's commitment to an interinstitutional agreement on access to the negotiation documents.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said "We have tried to take on board the concerns voiced by the EP in its resolutions". Requests would have to be tabled by judicial authorities, and legal redress ensured in case of abuse. Concerning "bulk data" transfers she said "I know this is a great concern for the European Parliament, but without it there would be no TFTP (Terrorism Finance Tracking Program)". She added "should the EU develop something similar to the TFTP, US authorities are willing to help us".

"The European Parliament wants an agreement, but not an agreement at any cost", said Simon Busuttil (MT), speaking on behalf of the EPP group. Mr Busuttil welcomed the Commission's "readiness to come up with a mandate", which he hoped would be approved "as soon as possible". The EP would exercise its powers "constructively and responsibly", he added, referring to the bulk data issue. "What we want will require a rethink not only on the US part but also on our part. Will we want a European TFTP?" he asked. Next week a mission of the EP would be going to the US to discuss these issues with our counterparts in the US Congress.

Contradicting the previous speaker, Birgit Sippel (S&D, DE) said her group favoured "not an agreement as soon as possible" but "as good an agreement as possible", and she said the Council should not take its decision until the EP had voted on 6 May. She opposed bulk data transfers as "not commensurate" and said an authority in Europe should check how the data was extracted. Finally she asked the Council and Commission "How can they be sure that only data that is really required is passed on?".

For the Liberal group, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert (NL) said the fact that Parliament would not vote on its resolution this week "should not inhibit Council to go ahead with the adoption as scheduled." However, she added, "the principles of proportionality and necessity are key to the envisaged agreement" and "European legal demands for the fair, proportionate and lawful processing of personal information are of paramount importance". Thus, "it is for Council and Commission to put this into concrete action and to negotiate an agreement that meets all the EU and US expectations."

Jan Philipp Albrecht (Greens/EFA, DE) said "we are talking about constitutional principles, protecting privacy, legal protection and proportionality". Regarding bulk data transfers, he asked "is this appropriate at all?". He believed it was a violation of the treaties and suggested other "less intrusive measures" would be preferable.

Charles Tannock (ECR, UK) explained that, even if his group supported the original agreement submitted to Parliament, the new proposal by the Commission "could perhaps ultimately be for the good" because of the "little appreciation" that American diplomats showed with Parliament's new powers. He concluded that the announced visit by US Vice-President Joseph Biden to Parliament may contribute to improve this situation. "Nobody wants to see the EU-American relations strengthened more than I do", he added.

Marie-Christine Vergiat (GUE/NGL, FR) said the Commission's guidelines took up some of the EP's demands on data storage and legal redress. However, this progress was "insufficient" since "the principles of necessity and proportionality are not respected". "I do not trust the US authorities when it comes to these issues", she stressed, adding that "we are still waiting for guarantees to protect the rights of European citizens".

Mario Borghezio (EFD, IT) believed the new guidelines were valid, to ensure "necessary and effective cooperation with the US authorities", and argued that "Europe should not forget to defend itself from terrorism". The new mandate would guarantee citizens' rights to privacy and to legal redress, he said.

Transfer of passenger name records to USA and Australia

Parliament has also been asked to approve or reject an agreement on the transfer of air passenger data to the USA and Australia. On 6 May MEPs will vote on a draft resolution which is expected to propose postponing the vote so that a standard Passenger Name Record (PNR) file model can be devised that meets Parliament's demands on data protection. PNR data, which was initially gathered for commercial purposes, is increasingly being used to combat crime.

At the plenary debate on Wednesday Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced that she would propose a "PNR package" including "a global external PNR strategy", setting out the general requirements for agreements with third countries as well as proposals for renegotiating agreements with the US, Australia and Canada, and for a new European PNR system.

Rapporteur Sophia in 't Veld (ALDE, NL) noted that although Parliament had always been highly critical of the use and transfer of PNR data, rejecting two agreements would create legal uncertainty and practical difficulties for citizens and carriers. Instead, she advocated suspending the vote, and urged the Commission to table this new "PNR package" before the summer break.

Axel Voss (EPP, DE) also spoke in favour of postponing the vote "to take into account our concerns on data protection". Birgit Sippel (S&D, DE) hoped that a series of issues -such as the nature of data or the risk of profiling- could be clarified, and a negotiating mandate drawn up, before the summer break.

Jan Philipp Albrecht (Greens/EFA, DE) warned that uncontrolled access to PNR data worldwide was already breaching constitutional rights. Ryszard Czarnercki (ECR, PL) agreed and added: "even those in the European Parliament who are in favour of data transfer were complaining about the way the Council treated them". Finally, Eva-Britt Svensson (GUE/NGL, SE) said that the use of PNR sometimes determines who has the right to fly and who does not, adding that this could infringe fundamental human rights.

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