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23rd Nov 2019

Interview

EU data privacy chief criticises air passenger bill

EU data privacy chief Giovanni Buttarelli has said a forthcoming law gathering detailed information on air passengers is too invasive and is unlikely to stop terrorism.

“If this summer, if you fly to Sardinia, do you think this information is essential for the prevention of terrorism?” said the European data protection supervisor (EDPS).

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Buttarelli said it makes more sense to target specific categories of flights, passengers, and countries.

“I’m still waiting for the relevant evidence to demonstrate, even in terms on the amount of money, and years to implement this system, how much it is essential,” he said.

His comments come after MEPs in the civil liberties committee on 15 July agreed a legislative proposal that will allow the collection of detailed information – such as credit card details and addresses – of all people flying in and out of the EU. Buttarelli is due to give a formal opinion on it in September.

The law – known as the EU Passenger Name Record (PNR) directive - was proposed in 2011, rejected in 2013 by the civil liberties committee and suspended a year later.

It was then revived in the aftermath of the Paris and Copenhagen attacks at the start of 2015 and is likely to be wrapped up by the end of this year.

Buttarelli was also indirectly critical of a new French law that gives the French state sweeping powers to conduct digital dragnets on people, even if they are not suspected of any crime.

While refusing to comment directly on the law he noted that “mass surveillance is against values and has no legitimacy in the EU”.

Both the French law and the PNR directive follow a similar pattern of a terrorist attack leading to hastily drawn-up legislation that is then heavily criticised by civil liberties groups.

A data retention law followed a similar path. It was reintroduced - after being abandoned - in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings in 2004 and the London bombings in 2005. It was deemed void by the EU’s highest court last year on grounds that it was disproportionate.

In an op-ed published earlier this month on security and privacy, Buttarelli led with a 260-year old quote from Benjamin Franklin who said “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Data bill 'is not the reform of my dreams'

Meanwhile, Buttarelli is being more assertive on the data protection bill.

On the Monday, his office published a free mobile app that allows people to compare and contrast each article of the bill between the three EU institutions alongside EDPS recommendations.

He said he is aware of the “risks” of being seen as interfering in the legislative process but said he wants to highlight ethical issues as people need to be better protected in this new data age.

“People need to be protected not only because they are users or consumers but because they are persons”, he said.

As people become more monitored and more profiled, they risk discrimination in terms of access to services, he noted.

“I don’t want to be a passive spectator of what others are doing with our data, that’s the challenge”, he said.

EU law and policy makers want the bill finalised, after three years of talks, before the end of 2015.

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