Monday, the European Commission trumpeted an EU-wide agreement on the Network and Information Security Directive (NIS), the result of a two-and-a-half year effort to coordinate efforts by government and industry to secure networks.
Just hours later, during the opening morning of a two-day conference on online privacy, software and hardware weaknesses, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee (LIBE) discussed the status quo as well as how to strengthen the EU's IT sector. Much of the discussion focused on how to move forward in the wake of recent events including the terrorist attacks in Paris and the European Court of Justice's ruling in Schrems. While all who spoke yesterday agreed we're living in unprecedented times, many were quick to implore European lawmakers to resist the urge for reactionary policies that may mean less privacy for citizens.
European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip in his opening remarks discussed the importance of trust to the digital single market (DSM) the EU aims to build. Ansip said trust must be assured across borders and added he and his colleagues have been working closely with U.S. authorities to ensure appropriate oversight of a DSM system.
"As confirmed recently by the European Court of Justice, these safeguards are essential for guaranteeing the protection of our personal data," Ansip said of the Schrems decision. "They must be respected."
If citizens feel their data is protected, Ansip continued, participation in e-services will proliferate.
"Trust is everything," he said.
And while now more than ever the Internet is a breeding ground for hate speech and online radical content, the enemy shouldn't be misidentified.
"... We should not demonise the Internet," he said. "The Internet itself is not to blame."
While it might be tempting to create policies in the name of security, Ansip called for proportionality.
"So-called backdoors to the Internet may sound tempting to ensure security but would ultimately erode trust," he said. "The Internet is now part of our Democratic social fabric, which must remain a truly global resource free from being captured by specific political interests."
UN Special Rapporteur for Privacy Joseph Cannataci shared Ansip's concerns about reactionary policies, particularly in light of November's terrorist attack in Paris.
"Our sorrow must be tempered with the wisdom to recognize security measures which do actually work," he said. "The best way to preserve European values in the wake of recent horrors as we witnessed in Paris is to protect our fundamental ways of life," which include dignity and proportionality.
Otherwise, we're "riding on a wave of emotion which clouds our reasoning," he added, noting the introduction by some member states of "draconian legislation" that's "neither proportionate nor significantly respectful" of privacy rights. Worse, all too often terrorist attacks are the result of intelligence failures themselves.
"All too often, it's the wrong tool applied in the wrong way," Cannataci said.
To ensure EU citizens maintain their right to privacy guaranteed in the Charter, Cannataci said some basic facts must be recognized.
First, encryption "is here to stay as part of everyday life," he said. Even if governments wish to outlaw it, the bad guys—terrorists and organized crime—will find a way to use a different grade of encryption.
"Denying encryption to the good guys doesn't mean greater security. At best, it could possibly but not always lead to the apprehension of the most stupid and technically unsophisticated of bad guys."
Next, back doors to the Internet and other communications is a bad idea for many reasons, but in part because mass surveillance is relatively easy to circumvent and presents a disproportionate risk to privacy for 99 percent of European citizens, not to mention may be a "momental waste" of taxpayer money, he said.
Cannataci said he supports the use of targeted surveillance where due process has been followed and appropriate oversight mechanisms exist.
Finally, Scott Marcus, a visiting fellow at Bruegel, a Brussels-based economic think tank, discussed the future of IT and privacy in Europe. He said Europe is primed to shine if it moves correctly with a highly skilled population and a high level of adaptability. But it's plagued by a chronic problem with innovation and IT.
"The list of problems mostly have been difficult to deal with," Marcus said. "Fundamentally, if we want to change the game here, both for security products and online services in general, we need to somehow stoke the engine of European innovation," he said. That could be difficult, because you "can't necessarily change attitudes toward entrepreneurship."
I'm sure in the future, data protection is going to be a very important factor in companies choosing their places of action. -Scott Marcus, Bruegel
Marcus suggested Europe aim to help small companies doing things well to scale up.
"To a large degree, it's not about startups but scale ups," he said.
He added that Europe needs a charter of fundamental rights for the digital era, which must emerge from European ideals and be an inclusive process.
And to those who say data protection might be bad for the economy? He disagrees.
"I'm sure in the future, data protection is going to be a very important factor in companies choosing their places of action," he said. "Companies should be increasingly attracted to putting their data services in places where there is the best data protection and security guaranteed through an effective style of law."
The conference continued today with speeches by Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Günther Oettinger and DG Justice Director General Francisco Fonseca Morillo.
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