EU to share passenger data with US

2012-03-27 20:05

Brussels - A key European Parliament panel backed on Tuesday a controversial agreement requiring airlines to transfer the personal data of passengers to US authorities, despite privacy fears in Europe.

The pact, if adopted by the full parliament next month, would replace a 2007 deal that has allowed the United States to receive information such as passenger names, credit card numbers and addresses for its anti-terrorism activities.

The new deal endorsed by the parliament's civil liberties committee, in a 31-22 vote, would allow the use of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data to prevent, investigate and prosecute terrorism and as well as transnational crimes.

Euro MP Sophie in 't Veld, the parliament's lead lawmaker on the bill, opposed the legislation and accused the United States of threatening to suspend visa-free travel for Europeans if the deal was rejected.

"Many colleagues - understandably - did not want to make this sacrifice. But it is highly regrettable that the fundamental rights of EU citizens have been bargained away under pressure," the Dutch liberal lawmaker said.

The United States has credited PNR data as a valuable tool in terror investigations, including on suspects in the 2010 Times Square bomb and the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

But Washington and the European Commission were forced to negotiate a new PNR agreement after the European Parliament refused to vote for the old deal in May 2010.

While the EU is debating whether to create its own PNR system for flights into and out of Europe, some officials and lawmakers criticise it as an intrusion into the privacy and civil liberties of citizens.

In 't Veld warned that the deal could give the United States leeway to use PNR data for other purposes, including immigration checks or public health.

Security partnership

The European Parliament's conservative groups backed the US deal in the committee vote, while liberals, greens and communists rejected it. The socialist bloc was divided.

"The importance of PNR data for our security cannot be underestimated. This agreement secures passengers' rights and safety, and it cements the crucial EU-USA security partnership," said Timothy Kirkhope, a British conservative MEP.

The new deal would allow the United States to sift through PNR data for 15 years for terrorism-related investigations. After that period the information must be deleted.

Under the deal, the personal data of a passenger sent to US authorities would become "anonymous" after six months, meaning that the person's name and contact information would be masked out but available in case of an inquiry.

The data would remain in an "active" database easily accessible to US officials for five years, and then move to a "dormant" database where stricter conditions for access would apply for the remaining 10 years.

The EU sealed a PNR deal with Australia last year that will allow Australia authorities to store the passenger data for five and half years, and another deal is being negotiated with Canada.