New U.S.-E.U. Online Privacy Agreement Lacks Teeth

by Tracy Knauer •

The United States made new promises this week that European citizens’ data stored on U.S. servers would not be subject to surveillance by the U.S. government. But so far, promises are the only thing the U.S. has offered to assure European concerns about online data privacy.

The promises were part of a new agreement between U.S. and European officials about the way American companies, like Facebook and Google, could transfer data between the two regions. The data privacy promises by the U.S. were an effort to resolve European concerns that had caused an earlier “Safe Harbor” arrangement to fall through in the autumn.

The main difference between then and now is that the agreement now includes written vows by the U.S. not to spy on European citizens’ private data. The promises in this regard will be reviewed each year by European officials. “We will hold the U.S. accountable on the commitments that they have made,” Vera Jourova, one of the European Union negotiators, said.

But because the new agreement includes nothing in the way of concrete measures that actually prevent spying on private data, not all European officials are happy. Other European agencies are already requesting clarification and indicating a willingness to challenge the new agreement.

Another Reason to Use Privacy Tools

If you follow online privacy news regularly, you probably won’t find any of this very surprising. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union has a stellar track record of protecting individuals’ privacy on the Internet.

Still, this is notable as one more example of how governments are making promises about online privacy that, in reality, have absolutely no teeth. The U.S. can say whatever it wants about not spying on European citizens’ data, but without measures in place to determine whether it is doing that, or to make the data hard to read, the promises don’t really translate into assurances.

And that’s another reason why you should make use privacy tools if you are concerned about keeping your data secure (especially, in this case, if you are based in Europe). Using a VPN to conceal your location and encrypt data in transit could help prevent some types of privacy compromise.

But the most important steps to take, if you are worried about privacy concerns related to this news, is to avoid using non-private search providers like Google, and stay away from privacy-unfriendly social networking apps. For alternatives in these categories, see our guides here and here.

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