privacy

U.S. tech tools still fall short of European privacy standards

The European Union's top data protection watchdog expects that only a select band of U.S. technology companies will meet E.U. data protection standards for the foreseeable future.

Under the E.U. Data Protection Directive, personal data cannot be transferred out of the E.U. unless the destination country's data protection laws are deemed adequate. To date, only a tiny number of jurisdictions have been deemed adequate: Argentina, Canada, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Israel, Switzerland, and Uruguay.

However, U.S. companies get an exception if they agree to abide by seven "safe harbor privacy principles" for the protection of E.U. citizens' personal data. Such data includes sensitive information such as patient records required for telemedicine.

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The U.S. Ambassador to Europe, William Kennard, called for the U.S. to be given "adequate" status in a recent speech at the Annual European Data Protection and Privacy Conference in Brussels.

But European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx said at the same event that, although he would not exclude the possibility that may happen in the future, the ambassador was being a little optimistic.

Hustinx should know: He chairs the body that recommends whether a country's legal system provides adequate protection to personal data from the E.U.

After Hustinx and the E.U. member states' national data protection commissioners, collectively the Article 29 Working Party, have drawn up an opinion on a country, then the Article 31 management committee must reach a majority decision on the adequacy of data security in the destination country. The European Parliament then has 30 days to scrutinize those opinions and only when it is satisfied can the decision to award a country data-secure status be adopted by the College of Commissioners.

Hustinx said that rather than declaring a company's laws adequate outright, a sectoral approach to data adequacy might be more useful, suggesting something along the lines of the existing safe harbor plan.

Changes in U.S. legislation could also advance the country's cause. Hustinx noted that, with the re-election of President Obama, a U.S. Privacy Bill of Rights looked closer. Many U.S. privacy advocacy groups have pointed to the European practices as a model.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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