UK information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has called for international harmonisation of privacy rules.

His call follows recent disputes between the EU and the US over privacy safeguards for European air passenger data and financial transaction information requested by the US as part of its anti-terrorism efforts.

Speaking at the International Association of Privacy Professionals' summit in Washington, Thomas said: "We must all do global privacy better. Information flows do not recognise international boundaries. The internet is rightly called the world wide web. Likewise travel, finance, commerce, telecoms, crime, scams and terrorism all increasingly operate internationally.

"We can no longer go on with different privacy controls in different parts of the world. Inconsistencies cause unnecessary confusion and complexity, increased costs and reduced consumer trust and confidence."

He added: "Greater consistency – especially between US and EU approaches – will reduce barriers to transferring data and give people better assurances that their personal information is protected wherever it goes."

A better global privacy system "means an active commitment to harmonisation", he said.

Thomas added: "Just as it is important that US privacy laws are not discussed in isolation from the rest of the world, so too must the European Union be ready to consider changes."

There could be "scope for less bureaucracy, less emphasis on prior authorisation and a more concrete focus on preventing real harm", he said.