Week ahead: Safe Harbor talks go down to the wire

The U.S. and European Union are coming down to the wire in tense negotiations to reach a new transatlantic data transfer agreement.

The two sides have until Sunday to strike a deal on a new Safe Harbor pact that would allow major U.S. firms such as Facebook and Google to handle Europeans' data without fear of regulatory action.

The original agreement, which permitted some 4,400 U.S. firms to legally handle European citizens' data, was struck down last fall over privacy concerns.

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Despite signs in recent months that negotiators were close to resurrecting Safe Harbor, no final pact has been produced. And if the two sides can't accomplish that by Sunday, Europe's privacy regulators have said they will begin to take enforcement action against U.S. firms.

A Senate committee this week approved a bill that many believed would help grease the wheels for negotiators.

The so-called Judicial Redress Act would give EU citizens the right to challenge misuse of their personal data in a U.S. court. But an 11th-hour amendment from Republicans has dismayed the European Commission, potentially imperiling the Safe Harbor talks.

The add-on was a compromise offered to assuage concerns from some Republicans who thought the bill was a "concession" to the EU. The extra provision would require the European countries covered by the bill to allow commercial data transfers with the U.S. In addition, it includes a clause stating that the bill cannot impede U.S. national security interests.

Those familiar with the Safe Harbor talks say the European Commission, which is leading negotiations on the EU side, is considering sending a letter to Congress expressing concerns over the last-minute addition to the legislation.

With Sunday's deadline looming, Europe's more hard-line privacy regulators are set to meet in Brussels on Tuesday to establish guidelines on how companies can legally handle European citizens' data in the Safe Harbor deal.

On Capitol Hill next week, lawmakers on Thursday will hold the blizzard-postponed nomination hearing for Beth Cobert, President Obama's pick to head the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Cobert has been acting director of the agency since July, when former OPM head Katherine Archuleta resigned in the wake of the mammoth data breach that exposed over 22 million people's sensitive information.

The acting director was charged with righting the ship under intense Capitol Hill scrutiny. She spearheaded the efforts to notify the millions of hack victims, was involved in an overhaul of the background check process and has led the charge to fortify the OPM's woefully outdated computer systems.

Her work thus far has received praise from both sides of the aisle.

"In my initial meetings with Beth Cobert, she has impressed me as a talented, qualified and competent choice for OPM director," said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzThe myth of the conservative bestseller Elijah Cummings, Democratic chairman and powerful Trump critic, dies at 68 House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records MORE (R-Utah) when Cobert was nominated in November.

Chaffetz was the most persistent and vocal critic of Archuleta and OPM leadership during a series of hearings on the hacks. He has continued to call for the firing of other top OPM officials.

But Cobert has escaped his condemnation.

"I am pleased the president has opted for a credible selection this time rather than a political one," Chaffetz said.

 

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