Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/02/22/transparency_bodge/

Data watchdogs write then bury transparency plan

We'd love to tell you about it. But we won't

By Mark Ballard

Posted in Law, 22nd February 2007 14:53 GMT

European privacy guardians committed themselves to transparency and openness last week - but haven't gotten round to telling anyone yet.

The Article 29 Working Party, which is made up of representatives from all of Europe's data protection authorities, had formally adopted a declaration of transparency at its meeting last Wednesday and Thursday, said sources close to the group.

They've been talking about an urgent need to communicate their arcane activities more effectively for some years. They fear that people's liberties are being whittled away by European governments that are eagerly applying rapidly evolving technologies for the purpose of crime detection, law enforcement and social sorting, but are doing so with little regard for people's privacy.

But today, a week on, the paper has still not been published. The Register understands that it makes reference to the urgent need for the Working Party to make its communications fast and effective.

A summary of the proceedings said it had merely "developed a strategy for enhancing the transparency of its work" and "agreed on ways to enhance transparency and communication".

In the days before the meeting, the secretariat of the Working Party at the European Commission refused to release its agenda: "The draft agenda for the meetings are also only available to its members," said one of the secretariat staff, who subsequently said they were unable to answer enquiries.

The declaration of transparency, which had already been distributed among members before the meeting, is thought to contain a promise that the committee's meeting agendas and rough minutes will be shared with the public.

It was a revision of a similar paper published in 2003, but the document was also not available. Opinions on pressing PNR and SWIFT, issues of significance for transatlantic relations in the "war on terror", were not on the Working Party's website, neither was another on "binding corporate rules", which might have something to do with SWIFT, or so we must deduce ourselves from the Spartan summary.

An opinion on electronic health records has appeared within the last two days, but other matters discussed in the meeting get only cursory references: "The WP discussed the protection of children's privacy with a view to establishing a common view on the issues at stake," it declared without further elaboration.

The transparency initiative had evolved from last November's joint declaration of information commissioners, an annual announcement of near religious importance to privacy wonks.

November's meeting, electric with a sense of destiny and alive with bold talk about how emerging surveillance technologies could herald the re-emergence of totalitarian regimes, produced a statement called "Communicating Data Protection and Making it More Effective."

(The world's information commissioners have their backs to the wall. And the most important declaration they make all year is little more than a PR strategy).

The London declaration, which to be fair was a "first step...to develop a need to communicate better and make data protection more effective", had been inspired by a speech given by Alex Turk, the president of the French data protection office in 2003.

Turk had talked about the need to help people understand what their "fundamental rights" were because their ignorance of privacy issues represented an "underlying threat to fundamental liberties".

People understand what you mean when you talk about curtailing the freedom of the press, he said. They might get pretty emotional if you threaten to limit their freedom of movement. But they can't quite get their heads around the idea that its important to protect the privacy of their personal data.

All the while, European states are pressing ahead with things like DNA databases without any coherent opposition or scrutiny. And while a two-speed Europe might not be deemed acceptable when it concerned political integration, it was progressing quite happily in matters of law enforcement, or the piecemeal encroachment on these elusive "fundamental liberties".

"One finds oneself alone in the face of an executive which will explain to you that it can't understand your cries of indignation at what they propose," said Turk, "Quite recently, a member of the executive in Paris told me not to worry about the subject of DNA records, because we are retaining a thousand times fewer than the British. To which I responded, 'that's a fine affair'." ®