EU-US passenger data row heats up

A deadline has been set for an agreement over what data about transatlantic passengers the US authorities are entitled to - and how long they can keep it
Written by Jerome Thorel, Contributor

The European Parliament has given Commissioner Frits Bolkestein 15 days to sort out an agreement with Washington over the thorny issue of airline passenger data.

Commissioner Bolkestein was quizzed on Monday by the European Parliament about the EU-US debate on the privacy of transatlantic air travellers' personal data. While a political accord between the parties has yet to be reached, the opposing factions will have to wait until 16 December -- the date of their next meeting - to put an end to all the political wrangling.

Bolkestein had been charged with reviewing the state of the negotiations between Brussels and Washington about airline passenger date. At stake is the Americans' right to access passenger data, some of it highly sensitive, which at present US customs have been accessing directly -- trying to satisfy the niceties of American air safety concerns as well as European data protection directives.

Airlines from within the EU, including Air France and BA, are awaiting the results of the dispute, which would set in stone the legality how passenger data passes into US hands without breaking European law.

The two parliamentary commissions involved in the negotiations -- those that take care of legal affairs and human rights respectively -- have stated they don't believe the concessions made by the Americans to date are "sufficient". One such concession saw the US agreeing to accept another reduction in the amount of time passenger data can be held for -- from seven down to three and a half years (the time limit had previously been set at 50 years).

Two other amendments that had been put forward, Bolkestein explained, were the setting up of a verification process for the data transfer and a complaints system for EU citizens.

The US remains intractable on the subject of using the data for "ends other than the fight against terrorism" - for example, investigations into any crime or misdemeanour that merits a punishment over four years in prison. However, the number of fields that a Personal Names Record (PNR) can contain will fall from 39 to 34, removing the need to store certain sensitive data, including the passenger's private telephone number and meal preferences -- which could be used to find out their religion.

Frits Bolkestein appeared pessimistic over the concessions he would be able to wrestle from the Americans: they have sovereign authority over whom they allow to set foot on their soil, he told deputies, implying that he envisaged reprisals if the problems aren't resolved. Passengers could be forced to await hours at airports after their arrival in the US and companies could find themselves forbidden from operating or suffering financial sanctions, for example.

According to the Commissioner, the very last deadline by which a compromise must be found is Christmas Day this year.

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