22nd Jan 2021

Unhappy MEPs to approve passenger data deal

The freshly re-negotiated Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement on the transfer of personal data of travellers flying from Europe to the US still raises privacy concerns, MEPs familiar with the text have said. But a veto by the parliament is unlikely, however.

"Whatever they did are just cosmetic changes, the substance of blanket data retention has remained. And even if they say personal data will be 'anonymised' after six months, the US still keeps all the records for 15 years," German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht told this website on Friday (11 November).

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Albrecht said that US pressure was big both on MEPs and on member states to seal off this 'improved' text.

From his point of view, however, the agreement violates EU data privacy rules as long as the US continues to access and store all private data, such as telephone numbers, email addresses and credit card information, even if it gets blacked out and can be retrieved by US police or intelligence officers only with special permission from a superior.

A parliamentary veto is unlikely however, since it would expose European airlines to potential court cases if they continue to transfer passenger data to US authorities, which they will be obliged to if they want to fly into American airspace.

EUobserver understands that the largest group in the parliament, the European People's Party, is not willing to go down that road, even if the large German contingent within the party is still dissatisfied with some of the privacy provisions.

But with the EU being at the 'demanding' end, its negotiating position is much weaker than when the US wanted for instance an agreement on banking data transfers, which was vetoed last year by the EU legislature.

Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in't Veld, who has also consulted the final PNR text on Thursday in a "secure room", says that her group will wait for all the legal advice it can get before deciding how to vote. In't Veld will draft the parliament's position on the PNR agreement.

"I am still very concerned. Some of the problematic issues have not really been resolved. It still allows data to be used for broader purposes than counter-terrorism and organised crime as we have demanded," she said.

Pointing out that the parliament has been fighting this data transfer agreement since 2003 and currently has the power to strike it down, she said she was disappointed to see that the final outcome turned out to be "only marginally better" than what MEPs had asked for.

"If this is what were are able to get out of our closest allies, what will come out of negotiations with other countries? South Korea and Qatar are also interested in PNR agreements, South Africa, Malaysia and Cuba are preparing demands and it will be only a matter of time until Russia and China will want this, too," in't Veld noted.

A PNR agreement with Australian was approved last month by the Parliament, but it contained much shorter retention periods - five and a half years - and it limited the scope to terrorism and organised crime, as MEPs had demanded.

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