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EU justice ministers agree limited data protection rules

European Union justice ministers Friday agreed on a minimum set of rules protecting the cross-border exchange of personal data by law-enforcement agencies in the 27 member states.

The personal data protection framework decision reached in Brussels is the first of its kind, and comes at a time in which civil liberty advocates are voicing growing concerns about the possible abuse of citizens’ privacy as the EU steps up efforts to fight terrorism. The agreement spells out clearly which data can be shared, who is allowed to access it, and the penalties for those who misuse it. For instance, personal data can only be used by police forces investigating serious crimes, and can only be retained for a up to 24 months. “This agreement comes at a very important time in which we are presenting a number of initiatives aimed at increasing security. This (framework decision) strikes the right balance between the fundamental right to security and the other fundamental right, the protection of personal data,” said Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner in charge of freedom, security and justice.

One anti-terrorism proposal put forward by the EU’s executive, the Commission, involves a European Passenger Name Record (PNR), granting authorities in all member states access to share details about people’s flight reservations. Another concerns a register of foreigners entering or leaving the 27-member bloc that would ultimately include details such as their photograph, fingerprints and even a scan of the retina of their eyes. Portuguese Justice Minister Alberto Costa, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said the adoption of the framework decision would lead to “better cooperation and a better exchange of information between Europe’s police and its courts.” “This is a vital element to combat terrorism and serious cross-border crimes,” Costa said.

However, Friday’s deal fell far short of the Commission’s more ambitious plan of making the framework decision also cover data protection in individual member states. Moreover, due to resistance from some member states, Friday’s agreement covers the exchange of data with third countries such as the United States, but only if this data is already shared at European level. “We do not want to transfer data at all costs,” Spanish Justice Minister Mariano Bermejo said on the sidelines of Friday’s talks. “(This deal) does not have everything that we might have wanted, but it’s better than nothing,” Costa conceded.

The Commission had promised the European Parliament to regulate data protection more than a year ago. Friday’s agreement was now expected to be examined by the EP before being formally adopted by governments in December. EU justice ministers also agreed on ways to cooperate in the fight against the trafficking in human being and against so-called “cyber crimes”, such as online pornography. The council also made headway on a draft directive designed to promote the amicable settlement of cross-border commercial disputes, for instance when a good is purchased from another member state over the internet. Friday’s meeting was followed by a signing ceremony formalizing ties between EU membership applicant Croatia and Eurojust, the EU body tasked with dealing with investigations into serious cross-border and organized crime. (m&c.com)