EU, US soon to sign privacy protection deal

The EU and the US are close to agreeing on how to protect personal and private data while still letting law enforcement officials share information to combat organized crime and terrorism, an Associated Press report said.

Eighteen months of closed-door talks between European and American officials have already led to agreement on key principles for data-sharing, according to Jonathan Faull, director of the European Commission's justice and interior affairs department, quoted by the report.

Faull said formal talks could begin later this year with a final binding deal reached in 2009.

The agreement aims to end criticism from privacy advocates and EU officials who have called for more guarantees that European privacy rights are respected by US authorities as they seek access to more data from Europeans for security purposes, the Associated Press report also said.

European privacy rules are generally stronger than those in the US, and authorities have clashed in recent years over specific deals reached to transfer data taken from passengers flying to the US and on banking and financial data transfers.

Faull said the pact would not give a blank check to US or European police authorities to snoop into e-mails, bank accounts, credit card details or telephone records across the Atlantic.

Privacy groups remained skeptical, characterizing the talks as an attempt by the US to weaken European privacy laws.

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wants to develop a common database of fingerprint and personal-data screening and wants access to EU visa applicant data files.