Biden vows to work with EU parliament on data privacy

BRUSSELS Thu May 6, 2010 1:19pm EDT

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden urged the European Parliament on Thursday to allow terror investigators from the United States access to citizens' bank data in Europe, promising to guarantee their privacy.

U.S. investigators say information on bank transfers is vital in pursuing people suspected of terrorist activities, but the issue has become controversial in Europe because of concern over privacy protection.

In February, the European Parliament vetoed an agreement between the United States and the European Union on sharing data, citing insufficient safeguards.

Addressing EU parliamentarians during a visit to Brussels, Biden tried to persuade the lawmakers to back a new deal, likely to be reached by negotiators in the coming months.

Talks are due to start this month and the EU's executive Commission has vowed to win improvements in privacy protection.

"I don't blame you for questioning it (the deal) ... I am absolutely confident that we can succeed to both use the tool and guarantee privacy," Biden said in a speech.

The U.S. lost access to data on European transfers several months ago when the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which tracks most of the cash changing hands across borders, reconfigured its server infrastructure.

U.S. officials now warn they have lost a vital tool in monitoring plans for any future attacks, such as the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

"We believe that the terrorist finance tracking program is essential to our security as well as to yours," Biden said. "It has provided critical leads to counter terrorism investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, disrupting plots and ultimately saving lives."

Biden said another counter-terrorism program where the EU is cooperating with the United States, on sharing passenger records, had helped in the investigation of the New York Times Square car bomb plot.

"Just this week, our customs and border protection, using passenger information data, apprehended a suspect ... as he sought to flee the country," he said.

Despite the European Commission's pledges to improve data protection, a particularly sensitive issue in EU member Germany, some members of the European parliament have said they want even more safeguards than those suggested by the executive.

In particular, some deputies want more assurances from the United States that unused data will be stored for as little time as possible and that efforts are made to avoid sending information in "bulk."

"We are ready to sign (a new agreement) but you have to take a step forward if you want a 'yes'," said Birgit Sippel, a Socialist deputy from Germany.

The European Parliament will have to approve any new agreement on sharing data.

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