Surveillance: Eye looking through hole in paper

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E.U. data protections are causing a rift between digital civil liberties groups.

TechFreedom, a libertarian-leaning civil liberties group, has accused the European Union of hypocrisy in regulating data transfers to the U.S. but not elsewhere in the world.

The Washington, D.C.-based organization, in partnership with ex-NSA counsel Stewart Baker, has launched the Europocrisy prize to highlight what it believes is the E.U. turning a blind eye on alleged data abuses taking place between the E.U. and countries like China and Russia as well as potential data abuses within the E.U.

The prize offers $10,000, which is currently being crowdfunded, to anyone that can successfully file complaints in three European jurisdictions over data protection laws in non-U.S. countries that trade with Europe. 

Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, told The Daily Dot in a phone interview that the European Union’s efforts in regulating data transfers and concerns over surveillance have “focused exclusively on the United States.”

“If we don’t get a lot of interest in supporting the prize, in a way that proves the point, which is that no one seems to care.”

“While everyone has been raising hell about U.S. surveillance practices, nobody seems to be looking at or talking about how data is transferred to lots of other countries, including countries like Russia and China,” said Szóka.

Szóka points to Russian social network VKontakte (VK) as a non-E.U. company collecting data on Europeans while the Russian government has been notorious for introducing surveillance legislation.

“You can sign up from any European country, including through a European cell phone number,” Szóka said. “VK knows that they’re actively soliciting European members and they’re not compliant, they can’t possibly be compliant with European privacy law, given the access that the Kremlin has to their data.”

Not everyone is on the same page, though. Joe McNamee, executive director of Brussels-based digital and civil rights group EDRi, strongly disagrees with TechFreedom’s assessment of the E.U., calling the initiative “populist, simplistic, misleading, legally illiterate nonsense.”

McNamee questioned the partnership with Stewart Baker, with his National Security Agency background, as hypocritical in itself. He also raised several cases of the E.U. and other courts striking down privacy abuses within the union.

“[The European Court of Justice] killed the legislation on mass metadata storage (the data retention directive) while the European court of Human Rights overturned a Hungarian surveillance law in January,” McNamee said in an email. Also, last year, the European Commission stated in a letter to EDRi that it continues to monitor laws on national levels.

Szóka rejects the view that Baker’s involvement with TechFreedom’s initiative is hypocritical. 

“We and Stewart disagree on government surveillance. He might want Europe to be more forgiving of US government surveillance—and we want the opposite,” Szóka said. “But on European hypocrisy, he’s absolutely right.”

One of the main reasons the U.S. has received more attention from Europe comes largely down to the number of popular U.S. companies—think Facebook and Google—that collect data on Europeans. 

But while TechFreedom questions Europe’s stance on data privacy globally, the matter has not been entirely ignored.

In June a group of MEPs from the European People’s Party, the largest in the European Parliament, raised the issue of data protection in China with the European Commission. 

“China has not enacted any legislation that specifically addresses the collection, storage, transmission and operation of personal information,” said in their submission, a copy of which was provided to The Daily Dot. The Commission has yet to respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile the E.U.’s ongoing data-regulation efforts are coming to a head with Privacy Shield, which is replacing the now-defunct Safe Harbor agreement. It’s been highly contentious for both sides. Szóka called Privacy Shield a “farce” that addresses the private sector rather than individuals. EDRi has criticized the deal for failing to prevent bulk surveillance. 

As of this writing, the Europocrisy prize has raised $600, but Szóka emphasizes the attention it may bring to the debate rather then the dollar amount. He conceded that Brexit meant that TechFreedom’s concerns are unlikely to be discussed any time soon: “Things that are not urgent get put off for just like in Washington.”

“If we don’t get a lot of interest in supporting the prize, in a way that proves the point, which is that no one seems to care,” he said. “The purpose of doing this is to call attention to the problem.”

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