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Europe votes to restrict police data sharing

Data protection reinstated

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The European Parliament voted on Monday night to reinstate the principles of data protection in legislation that would allow police across Europe to routinely share data about their activities.

As the Parliament has no authority in the third pillar (the EU's jurisdiction for police and judicial matters), the amendments it proposed last night have no official clout. But the European Council, which calls the shots on this framework, did formally ask the Parliament for its opinion on the matter, and the German Presidency has consulted MEPs.

Voting last night to endorse amendments that would ensure firmer data protection, MEPs have restored hope that data sharing between European police forces will only be allowed if it is done with proper regard for civil liberties.

The Germans have made the first concerted effort to revive the legislation since the Italian and Greek presidencies gave up on it in 2003 - largely because a few countries, most notably Britain, didn't like the idea that the common rules would be applied to national police operations as well.

They broke this deadlock by proposing that the legislation will only apply to data shared between European police forces and not to data held by national police forces. However, in three years the commission will look again to decide whether it ought to be applied nationally.

It is unlikely that the UK will be any happier about giving up its sovereignty over police and judicial matters in a few years time, so the rules are unlikely to be applied nationally. But until that happens, a fundamental problem the data guardians had with the legislation still stands, which makes their support of this compromise look a little curious.

Their problem stemmed from the proposal that the police shouldn't send data to other forces that don't also have an adequate level of data protection: if police received data from a country that didn't have adequate data protection law, they'd never be sure how reliable it was; if they sent data to a country that didn't have adequate data protection law, they could never guarantee the information wouldn't be abused or get into the wrong hands.

The current restriction on national jurisprudence thus looks unworkable. But the Parliament has reinstated an amendment that would prevent the police from sending data to third countries that don't have adequate data protection.

If that survives the next vote in the council, the national harmonisation of police data protection rules might be forced by default. MEPs think this might also have something to say about Europe's co-operation with controversial US data snooping programmes like PNR and Swift.

Germany's compromise might also allow the Parliament's other amendments, which address the strong reservations the European Data Protection Supervisor expressed about the legislation last month, to pass the hawkish Council when it meets in June. ®

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