Information Technology Hardware

Bridging the Transatlantic Digital Divide

The day after the US and the EU signed the so-called Umbrella Agreement strengthening data privacy, the US Justice Department argued in federal court that US authorities should be granted unlimited access to data located abroad, including in Europe. This dangerous breach of trust is likely to be self-defeating.

BRUSSELS – On September 8, after four years of painstaking negotiations, representatives of the United States and the European Union initialed a transatlantic agreement to strengthen data protection. The so-called Umbrella Agreement puts in place safeguards regarding data transfers for the purpose of law enforcement and addresses long-standing European concerns about the right to privacy. In particular, it establishes the right of European citizens to access their data and request that inaccuracies be corrected. It also sets clear limits on how long data can be held and what can be done with it.

The agreement – which must be ratified by the European Parliament before it goes into effect – should be cause for celebration; but the US immediately provided reason to doubt its commitment. On September 9, in the so-called Microsoft case, just one day after the agreement was reached, the US Department of Justice argued in federal court that US authorities should be granted direct access to data held by private companies abroad, including in Europe. However the court ultimately rules, the move is a dangerous breach of trust. Indeed, it is a public demonstration of American officials’ willingness to bypass existing avenues for cooperation between Europe and the US.

Such actions undermine the slow renovation of transatlantic trust since Edward Snowden’s revelations concerning the extent of American surveillance of European governments and citizens alike. If the US government is to gain the EU’s confidence and cooperation, it will have to accept the fact that national security and data privacy are not mutually exclusive. Continued refusal to proceed according to agreed legal channels will seal the Umbrella Agreement’s fate before it is ratified.