NSA inquiry: what experts revealed to MEPs 


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To what extent has the NSA been keeping tabs on Europeans? ©BELGA/DPA/N.Armer 

Conclusion time: after months of investigating mass surveillance by the NSA in Europe, the EP inquiry has finished penning its findings. The inquiry was launched last year in the wake of revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Showden and involved more than 15 hearings with representatives of EU institutions, national parliaments, the US Congress, IT firms, NGOs and journalists. The civil liberties committee votes on the draft report on 12 February. Read on to discover what MEPs found out.

At the first hearing in early September journalists stressed the need for democratic scrutiny over the work of security services. “[Mass surveillance] technologies can be used for purposes other than to fight terrorism,” warned Jacques Follorou, of the French daily Le Monde. Reporters also spoke of the importance of protecting whistle-blowers and journalists that make such stories public.

In a written statement for the inquiry, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden said he disclosed secret NSA document with the aim of launching a public debate on the balance between security and human rights.He said that public debate was not possible without public knowledge and that the surveillance of whole populations, rather than individuals, threatened to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time.

Two former NSA employees and one former MI5 officer testified in the hearings, with ex-NSA senior executive and whistle-blower Thomas Drake saying he had never imagined "that the US would use the 'Stasi guidebook' for its secret mass surveillance programmes".

US congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, chairman of the subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security, and investigations, told MEPs that abuses by the NSA had been carried out outside congressional authority. "I hope that we have learned our lesson and that oversight will be a lot more vigorous," he said.

Questions were raised during the hearings whether the surveillance had violated various EU-US agreements, including one on the transfer of financial data for identification of terrorist activities (TFTP agreement), or another agreement on the data protection standards that US companies should meet when dealing with Europeans' private data (Safe Harbour agreement). Some MEPs, however, did not agree, citing concerns about how this could affect EU-US relations. Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a Swedish member of the EPP, asked rhetorically: "Are we going to declare war on the US?"  Axel Voss, a German member of the EPP, said about the TFTP agreement: "At this point we cannot simply withdraw from the deal."

Microsoft, Google and Facebook managers invited to speak denied giving unfettered access to their servers. Experts suggested setting up a European “privacy cloud” - a secure data storage to protect internet users’ privacy.

The hearings also looked into surveillance activities in EU countries, including Denmark, Belgium and the UK.  “The Parliament inquiry was already looking not just into the NSA allegations, but also to our own backyard. We knew that the national oversight arrangements in many member states are inadequate to citizens,” said Claude Moraes, a British member of the S&D group in an interview in November.