EU Seeks to Limit US Access to Passenger Data

BRUSSELS ~ The European Union wants to reduce the number of personal details that people must provide to the US authorities when traveling to airports in the United States, a top EU negotiator said.

The EU, which began negotiations last week on a new passenger data transfer agreement with the United States, also wants to end the practice under which US authorities can freely access information in airline computers.

Currently 34 pieces of data, including credit card and passport details, email addresses and travel itinerary, can be withdrawn by the US Department of Homeland Security and shared with certain other law enforcement agencies.

“We will be looking to reduce the number of data items, but it’s far too early to say yet by how many,” said Jonathan Faull, director general of the European Commission’s justice department.

He said that, in any case, airlines often collected fewer passenger details than the 34 required, and EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini has said he thought only 19 pieces of data should be handed over.

“There is no doubt that our starting point will be that we want to make sure that the number is the strict minimum necessary for the US to carry out its legitimate law enforcement work,” Faull said.

A key part of the talks, which have to be completed by July, when an interim agreement runs out, will be to ensure that the data is eventually “pushed” to US customs when they make a request for it.

At the moment, they can log onto airline computers and suck up dozens of pieces of information at will, more in some cases than the 34 items allowed.

“There is no doubt that we want to see a comprehensive move to the push system,” Faull said, adding that the US authorities, who have acknowledged wanting to obtain even more information, did not seem to object to the change.

“My expectation is that it will happen,” he said, while adding that the move could be expensive and suggesting that airlines would probably have to bear the costs.

The problem surrounding the data transfers has its roots in intelligence failures that contributed to the success of the September 11, 2001, suicide plane hijackings in the United States.

The US Congress endorsed closer cooperation between law enforcement agencies but that conflicted with European reluctance to give open access to information about its citizens, particularly when their rights are not so well protected.

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