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How European Legislation Is About to Set the Brakes on Online Surveillance

25/06/2013 14:47 BST | Updated 24/08/2013 10:12 BST

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Your home and personal belongings cannot be searched without a court approved warrant, so why should it be acceptable for governments and companies to snoop on your online activities - which are no less personal - without any safeguards?

European legislation protects your right to privacy but these rules could soon be beefed up in the light of recent developments.

NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowdon's revelations about how the American and British governments survey the internet with the help of major companies has raised questions about just how safe our online personal data is. The much vaunted anonymity of the internet turns out to be a lot less anonymous than believed.

Most people accept that some government surveillance is necessary for the prevention of crime and terrorism but they want it to be tempered by rules setting out what is and isn't acceptable to protect basic rights like the right to privacy. "This is not only about data protection, this is about democracy and the rule of law, which cannot be in line with mass surveillance of citizens around the world," said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green MEP who is in charge of steering new data protection legislation through the European Parliament.

In the EU respect for private life and protection of personal data are enshrined in articles 7 and 8 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which are legally binding on all member states. The European Parliament ensures they are taken into account when assessing new legislative proposals. It is of course possible that these rights have to be moderated because other vital interests at stake, but MEPs make sure that any infringement is proportional and done for a good reason.

The EP has come out strongly on the right to privacy issue a number of times. For example, a few years ago MEPs vetoed an agreement on the transfer of passenger date to the US because of concerns about the use of personal data. In February 2010 they blocked an agreement on bank data transfers to the US for the same reason and the text had to be redrawn to ensure it addressed Parliament's concerns on issues including "bulk" data transfers and data mining, both of which were made impossible in the final agreement.

MEPs have also been very concerned about the revelations over the US Prism surveillance programme. Within days of the news breaking, MEPs called an emergency plenary to discuss the implications for privacy, data protection and EU-US security collaboration. This was followed up by a hearing by the civil liberties committee during which MEPs debated the issue with justice commissioner Viviane Reding. Ms Reding announced the launch of a transatlantic group of experts to address concerns. MEPs pressed her to keep Parliament fully informed about the expert group and called for safeguards for personal data transferred outside the EU. During the July plenary session there will be a debate on the role of security services in gathering information online.

The European Parliament is currently looking at proposals to strengthen data protection rules. The idea is to put consumers back in control. Information on the use of data should be presented in an easy to understand format and consent should be given for every use. Date should be strictly used for the purpose for which it was collated. The new rules are also meant to put an end to the current fragmentation in the way data protection is implemented in different EU countries.

The recent revelations show how urgently an update is needed. The aim is to adopt the legislation before the next European elections in May next year.

Infographic copyright European Parliament