* Reding urges EU states to back tighter data protection
* Justice commissioner warns US "safe harbour" deal at risk
* Says would take action against Britain if evidence found
By John O'Donnell
BRUSSELS, Jan 28 Some EU countries that have
criticised U.S. cyber surveillance are "hypocritical" as they
themselves are failing to protect citizens' private information,
the European Union's top justice official said on Tuesday.
Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding - a critic of the data
gathering exposed by former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden -
said she was seeking more legal assurances from Washington but
urged European countries to improve their own behaviour.
"There's been a lot of hypocrisy in the debate," Reding told
an audience in Brussels, calling on EU governments to back her
proposals to tighten the bloc's own data protection rules, and
expressing frustration at prolonged wrangling on the issue.
"If the EU wants to be credible in its efforts to rebuild
trust, if it wants to act as an example for other continents, it
also has to get its own house in order."
EU countries are negotiating a new data protection law which
would oblige companies like Google or Facebook
to seek consent before using personal information, and would
impose stiff fines if they break the rules.
But governments have yet to agree the text and the European
Parliament has threatened to block the law if concerns over data
privacy are not sufficiently addressed.
Reding also repeated her criticisms of Britain which,
according to the Snowden leaks, participated in a project
codenamed "Tempora" in which the British spy agency GCHQ tapped
fibre-optic cables that carry international phone and Internet
traffic and shared the data with the United States.
Reding said that when she asked London about the matter she
was told: "Hands off, this is national security."
While acknowledging that EU authorities have no power over
member states' national security operations, Reding said she
would take legal action if it appeared Britain was infringing
"If I come across a single email, a single piece of evidence
that the Tempora programme is not used purely for national
security purposes, I will launch infringement proceedings," she
Britain's foreign office declined to comment.
Reding urged Washington to provide greater legal safeguards
to strengthen an existing trans-Atlantic agreement called "Safe
Harbour" that allows companies that gather customer information
in Europe to send it to the United States - beyond the EU's
legal jurisdiction - as long as certain criteria are met.
"For Safe Harbour to be fully roadworthy the U.S. will have
to service it," she said. "Safe Harbour has to be strengthened
or it will be suspended."
Reding's comments come at a delicate moment in U.S.-EU
relations as talks are under way on what would be the world's
biggest free-trade pact.
One lawyer said agreeing new rules on data security in a
re-vamped "Safe Harbour" would be tricky.
"The American approach to data protection is very different
to that in Europe," said Mark Watts of London law firm Bristows.
"Unless both are more open-minded and ready to compromise, it
will take forever to agree a common approach."