BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union countries need stricter controls to protect citizens from spying, a top data protection official said on Thursday, a warning that may rekindle a debate about snooping before an EU summit next week.
Revelations by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden about mass surveillance of global Internet traffic and phone records have prompted calls in Europe for tighter safeguards and a review of data-sharing agreements with the United States, but so far with few concrete results.
In a letter to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, data protection official Peter Hustinx expressed concern that EU heads of state might fail to make a strong enough commitment to protect their citizens.
“The allegations of mass surveillance by security services have rocked the trust in the ability and willingness of governments and businesses to protect individuals’ personal information,” Hustinx wrote, without singling out the United States or mentioning Snowden specifically.
“The importance of data protection in building the European area of freedom, security and justice cannot be overstated,” he said.
The intervention of the official responsible for the protection of EU staff’s personal data comes shortly after Germany’s public prosecutor launched an investigation into the alleged bugging of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone by U.S. intelligence.
Data protection will be one of the items on the agenda when Merkel and other leaders meet for two days of talks on June 26.
A draft statement to be issued at the summit, seen by Reuters, said it would be “crucial to ensure the protection of fundamental rights, including data protection, while addressing security concerns.”
But the intervention from Hustinx, who also sits on a group of European privacy watchdogs, implied that this did not go far enough and underscores a growing sense of alarm among some officials that Europe’s response to U.S. spying has been limp.
Last year, the European Union backed down on threats to suspend an agreement allowing U.S. companies to gather customer information in Europe and send it to the United States, outside the EU’s legal jurisdiction.
On Wednesday Ireland’s High Court asked Europe’s top court to review the agreement in light of allegations that the U.S. National Security Agency used companies such as Facebook and Apple to gather data on Europeans.
The EU is set to discuss the data-transfer agreement, known as Safe Harbour, with the United States on Wednesday.
The snooping row could also complicate attempts by Brussels and Washington to reach a free-trade pact encompassing almost half of the world’s economy.
Reporting by Julia Fioretti; editing by Mark Trevelyan