23rd Jan 2018

Mexico-EU data dispute puts airlines at risk of sanctions

  • EU-based airlines flew 6,513 flights to Mexico in 2014 (Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck)

The EU has less than two weeks to sort a three-year old data dispute with Mexico or European air carriers risk $30,000 fines for every flight to the country.

Mexico wants European airlines to hand over the personal details of their passengers – known as passenger name records (PNR) - to government authorities.

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PNR includes sensitive information like credit card numbers and what type a meal a person eats on a flight. Mexico’s government wants the data to profile possible terrorists and criminals.

But the lack of a bilateral legal framework at the EU level and the outstanding issue over privacy means Mexico has been forced to derogate its law on three separate occasions.

Mexico has now imposed a 1 April deadline or carriers will face financial sanctions of up to $30,000 per flight if they do not comply and transfer the required passenger data.

“They’ve made it absolutely clear that there will be no further postponement,” Viktoria Vajnai, a PNR expert at the Brussels-based Association of European Airlines, told this website.

Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Air Berlin, Iberia as well as other UK and German based charter carriers are at the greatest risk. These airlines make up 85 percent of Mexico’s aviation market.

Last month, they flew 508 flights to the country. In 2014, the total was 6,513 flights, according to Eurocontrol.

Natasha Bertaud, spokesperson for the European commission, told EUobserver earlier this week that they are in contact with Mexico, the airlines, and national data protection authorities to help sort out the dispute.

“At this stage, there is still no clarity on the position that is or will be taken by national data protection authorities. It is up to them to decide whether to allow, or not, the airlines to transfer PNR data,” she said.

EU home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos is also in talks with his Mexican counterpart.

“It is essential that the solution should be a European one,” added Bertaud.

Mexico is not the only country demanding PNR data from European airlines. But it is the only one currently threatening sanctions.

South Korea has been asking for the same data since 2007. Some 20 countries, including Argentina, Japan, and Turkey are also keen on getting the data.

So far, the European commission has signed off on PNR agreements with Australia, Canada, and the United States.

"It should come as no surprise to the EU that having put three PNR agreements in place that other countries now want the same,” said Tony Bunyan, director of London-based civil liberties group Statewatch, in a statement.

"Reaching agreement on new PNR deals, which meet EU data protection standards, is on past evidence going to take years especially for countries whose democratic standards and privacy laws may be questionable," he added.

Last year, the European Court of Justice voided a crime-busting EU data retention law on grounds of disproportionate data collection of people not suspected of any crime.

Privacy advocates point to the Court's ruling and argue PNR systems lack the adequate safeguards needed to ensure governments don’t abuse the data.

Those concerns were heightened following media disclosures of US-led mass surveillance on EU citizens.

The Luxembourg court ruling, along with the European Parliament’s rejection of an EU-wide PNR system in 2013, has complicated efforts by the European Commission to deal with the demands of countries like Mexico.

The parliament has since asked the commission to clarify how an EU-wide PNR system can work within the bounds of the Court's judgment on data retention.

Frans Timmermans, the European commission vice-president, in a letter addressed earlier last month to European parliament president Martin Schulz, made the case for PNR.

Timmermans said the data "reveals, in principle, less about that person's privacy than having his or her phone calls or internet connections registered" and less indiscriminate because it only affects people who take international flights.

EU leaders want tighter border controls

EU leaders at a summit on Thursday agreed that there should be tighter controls at the EU's borders and urged MEPs to move forward on an air passenger information bill.

Rights NGOs face fresh threats in EU

While ongoing crackdowns in Poland and Hungary have put the spotlight on rights groups, NGOs are now under new political and financial pressure across the EU, the Fundamental Rights Agency said.

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