By John O'Donnell
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Some EU countries that have criticized U.S. cyber surveillance are "hypocritical" as they themselves are failing to protect citizens' private information, the European Union's top justice official said on Tuesday.
Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding - a critic of the data gathering exposed by former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden - said she was seeking more legal assurances from Washington but urged European countries to improve their own behavior.
"There's been a lot of hypocrisy in the debate," Reding told an audience in Brussels, calling on EU governments to back her proposals to tighten the bloc's own data protection rules, and expressing frustration at prolonged wrangling on the issue.
"If the EU wants to be credible in its efforts to rebuild trust, if it wants to act as an example for other continents, it also has to get its own house in order."
EU countries are negotiating a new data protection law which would oblige companies like Google or Facebook to seek consent before using personal information, and would impose stiff fines if they break the rules.
But governments have yet to agree the text and the European Parliament has threatened to block the law if concerns over data privacy are not sufficiently addressed.
Reding also repeated her criticisms of Britain which, according to the Snowden leaks, participated in a project codenamed "Tempora" in which the British spy agency GCHQ tapped fiber-optic cables that carry international phone and Internet traffic and shared the data with the United States.
Reding said that when she asked London about the matter she was told: "Hands off, this is national security."
While acknowledging that EU authorities have no power over member states' national security operations, Reding said she would take legal action if it appeared Britain was infringing privacy unjustifiably.
"If I come across a single email, a single piece of evidence that the Tempora program is not used purely for national security purposes, I will launch infringement proceedings," she said.
Britain's foreign office declined to comment.
Reding urged Washington to provide greater legal safeguards to strengthen an existing trans-Atlantic agreement called "Safe Harbour" that allows companies that gather customer information in Europe to send it to the United States - beyond the EU's legal jurisdiction - as long as certain criteria are met.
"For Safe Harbour to be fully roadworthy the U.S. will have to service it," she said. "Safe Harbour has to be strengthened or it will be suspended."
Reding's comments come at a delicate moment in U.S.-EU relations as talks are under way on what would be the world's biggest free-trade pact.
One lawyer said agreeing new rules on data security in a re-vamped "Safe Harbour" would be tricky.
"The American approach to data protection is very different to that in Europe," said Mark Watts of London law firm Bristows. "Unless both are more open-minded and ready to compromise, it will take forever to agree a common approach."
(Additional reporting by William James in London; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)