U.S. and EU near private data deal: report

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States and the European Union are near a deal on letting law enforcement and security agencies obtain private information like credit card transactions and travel histories about people on the other side of the Atlantic, The New York Times reported on Saturday.

A pedestrian holds her and her child's passport while waiting to cross into the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Ysidro, California January 31, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

The newspaper, which obtained an internal report on the potential agreement, said it would amount to a diplomatic breakthrough for U.S. counterterrorism officials after a history of clashing with the EU over demands for personal data.

It was unclear when the agreement could be completed, the Times said, citing officials, but the Bush administration wants to resolve the issues before leaving office in January and is hoping for an agreement that would not require congressional approval.

Negotiators, meeting since February 2007, have mostly worked out draft language for 12 major issues at the heart of a “binding international agreement,” according to the report. Among other things, the pact would make clear that European governments and companies could lawfully exchange personal information with the United States.

A major unresolved issue is whether residents of EU countries would be able to sue the U.S. government over its handling of their personal data, the Times said. U.S. law does not allow foreigners to sue the U.S. government for damages in such instances, the Times said.

The talks resulted from conflicts between the United States and Europe over information-sharing after the September 11 attacks. The Bush administration had demanded access to passenger data held by airlines flying out of Europe and by a consortium, known as Swift, which tracks global bank transfers. Several EU countries objected, citing privacy laws.

U.S. and EU officials hope to avoid future confrontations “by finding common ground on privacy and by agreeing not to impose conflicting obligations on private companies,” the Times quoted Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Homeland Security Department, as saying.

“Globalization means that more and more companies are going to get caught between U.S. and European law,” said Baker, who is involved in the talks.

Some European officials expressed concern at the prospective agreement’s ramifications.

“I am very worried that once this will be adopted, it will serve as a pretext to freely share our personal data with anyone, so I want it to be very clear about exactly what it means and how it will work,” said Sophia in’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and privacy rights advocate.

Negotiators are trying to work out minimum privacy rights standards, such as limiting access to information to “authorized individuals with an identified purpose” for seeing it, the Times said.

Writing by Chris Michaud, Editing by Peter Cooney