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22nd Jan 2021

Member states to clash with EU parliament on passenger data

  • Wrangling about data privacy: Should national authorities store personal data on all travellers? (Photo: Valentina Pop)

The European Parliament is likely to clash with member states over the use of EU air travellers' personal data in the search for suspected terrorists, as the UK is pushing to change a draft bill initially designed for passengers coming from non-EU countries.

Ahead of an interior ministers' meeting in Luxembourg next Monday (11 April), London seems to have convinced some 17 member states to change the scope of a draft EU bill regarding passenger data so that intra-EU flights are also covered.

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The current EU commission proposal envisages that so-called Passenger Name Records (PNR) - data given when booking a plane ticket including home address, passport number, credit card details and mobile phone number - should be passed on to national authorities for all travellers departing and arriving in the EU from other countries.

A similar system is already in place for flights to the US, with American authorities requesting all airlines to pass them on the PNR data of their travellers 72 hours prior to departure. The UK is already using the system bilaterally with a number of EU states and wants the EU bill to include intra-EU flights as well, since they make up 75 percent of all European flights.

"People realise the current proposal of the EU commission won't work. If you're going to collect PNR, it doesn't make any sense to do it only for extra-EU flights," one EU diplomat told this website.

In the British proposal, member states would choose themselves if and what routes - intra and extra-EU - they would collect data on, based on risk assessments from their intelligence services.

"This sort of targeted proposal, rather than seeking to cover all flights, could reduce the overall cost of the proposal. It would require carriers based in a particular member state to transmit PNR data to those member states that wished to collect it," British home secretary Theresa May wrote in letter sent to the Hungarian EU presidency and fellow interior ministers on 3 March.

In support of the need for PNR data, the UK cites the case of David Coleman Headley, a 50-year old Pakistani American who last year pleaded guilty after being arrested and charged with plotting the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008.

Headley was arrested in Chicago after US authorities accessed his PNR data from a flight from the US to Germany, followed by an intra-EU flight to the UK.

"Examples like this demonstrate the importance of PNR data. But they also show that we must urgently adopt an EU-wide system which includes within its scope intra-EU flights," May argues in the letter.

But the European Parliament, which has equal powers to change and strike down the law, is unlikely to agree that such broad powers be given to national authorities. The Socialist group, the second largest in the EU legislature, has already said it would not be in favour of such a move.

"It's absolutely crazy. This proposal will never pass through the Parliament," says German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht, himself tasked with formulating the Parliament's opinion on the new agreement with the US concerning PNR data.

"A huge amount of data on EU citizens will be retained daily, without having any concrete investigations, leaving room for random profiling and data mining. This is far beyond the commission's proposals and if the Council of ministers agrees to this, it won't be in line with what several constitutional courts and the European Court of Human Rights have said," Albrecht stressed.

As the collection and storage of PNR data would also be a question of data retention, Albrecht points out that another 'anti-terrorism' law obliging telecom companies to store details on phone calls and emails for up to two years and hand it over to police whenever requested - has been recently struck down as unconstitutional by the Czech supreme court - after similar verdicts in Germany and Romania.

"There will be a big conflict if they agree on this. Even within the European People's Party MEPs are questioning if PNR collection is really necessary and proportionate," Albrecht said.

The EU's data protection supervisor Peter Hustinx last week also warned against the storage of PNR for purposes other than those agreed to by the customer when buying a plane ticket and called on the records to be deleted after 30 days.

"Air passengers' personal data could certainly be necessary for law enforcement purposes in targeted cases, when there is a serious threat supported by concrete indicators," he said. "It is their use in a systematic and indiscriminate way, with regard to all passengers, which raises specific concerns."

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