EU Reaches Data ‘Understanding’ on US-Bound Air Passengers

BRUSSELS ~ The European Union has reached an “understanding” on how to transfer personal information about passengers flying to the United States for use in Washington’s “war on terror,” EU officials said.

The agreement, when endorsed next month, would provide the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with 19 categories of data about air travelers that it could keep for 15 years and share with other law enforcement agencies.

It would end more than a year of transatlantic legal wrangling over information that could be taken from tens of thousands of passengers each day, a process that has raised deep privacy concerns in Europe.

At a meeting in Brussels, EU ambassadors reached “basic political understanding on substance” of the passenger name record (PNR) agreement, the EU’s Germany presidency said.

It said that the accord must be reviewed by certain national parliaments in the 27-member Union before being officially endorsed, possibly on July 10, after unidentified “reservations” were raised.

“Time is needed for examination in capitals and national parliaments,” a EU official confirmed, on condition of anonymity.

The accord was built on a deal made last week between EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, for the EU presidency, and US Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff.

Schaeuble defended the US data collection system and said Europe should try to develop its own.

“It would be completely irresponsible not to use this information,” he said.

Under an interim agreement, which expires at the end of July, the DHS can obtain access to information about EU citizens flying to the United States for use in its fight against terrorism.

Thirty-four pieces of data, including credit card and passport details, email addresses and travel itinerary, can be withdrawn by the department and shared with some other agencies under certain conditions.

The new agreement would see the department collect 19 categories of information collected, according to a text of the agreement.

But to the untrained eye, these appear to cover most of the original 34 pieces of data and could even involve more information than currently used.

“It’s a bit of a disguise,” an EU diplomat acknowledged.

The US department would be able to retain the information for 15 years – in an “active database” for the first seven and “dormant status for the last eight – instead of three-and-a-half currently.

In a letter annexed to the text, the DHS commits to provide “PNR data only to other domestic government authorities with law enforcement, public security of counterterrorism functions.”

The data would be used “in support of counterterrorism, transnational crime and public security related cases (including threats, flights, individuals and routes of concern) they are examining or investigating …”

After seeing a draft of the agreement, European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx wrote to Schauble to express concern about several parts of it.

“I have serious doubts whether the outcome of these negotiations will be fully compatible with European fundamental rights,” he said in the letter.

“Data on EU citizens will be readily accessible to a broad range of US agencies and there is no limitation to what US authorities are allowed to do with the data,” he said.

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