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21st Apr 2019

EU ministers back air passenger data sweep

  • Member states want an EU PNR system but don't want compulsory rules to share the data with each other. (Photo: Khairil Zhafri)

Interior ministers backed an EU plan to sweep up the personal data of airline passengers but may face opposition among some MEPs when it goes to vote next week.

Luxembourg's deputy prime minister Etienne Schneider on Friday (4 December) announced the ministerial agreement on the European passenger name record (PNR).

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"After many years of discussion we've finally been able to get an agreement on a European PNR," he told reporters in Brussels.

PNR is meant to help police and intelligence agencies to track down possible terrorists and criminals by allowing them access to travel dates, ticket information, contact details, travel agency details, means of payment, seat numbers, and luggage details.

Law enforcement would be able to view all the data, including the passenger's name, for up to five years by accessing a dedicated database. Names are masked after six months but can be unmasked at any point upon request. After five years, the data is deleted.

Flights inside the EU from all 28 member states as well as those entering and leaving the EU would be tracked under the agreement.

"We will all introduce the intra-European flights and we will all introduce the charter flights," said Schneider.

Not everyone believes the proposal can be of much use.

Giovanni Buttarelli, the European data protection supervisor, told this website in an interview in September that "no elements reasonably substantiate the need for the default collection of massive amounts of the personal information of millions of travellers."

But British conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, who is steering the bill through the parliament, said the system needs to be put in place immediately.

Member states had initially wanted a 12 month retention period before masking the data but agreed to reducing it to six months if parliament included intra-EU flights in the scope of the directive, said a parliament source.

But despite almost five years of talks, the deal is still not quite done.

Kirkhope had earlier in the week voiced concern after the centre-right EPP, the socialists S&D, and the liberal Alde imposed new conditions he said could possibly derail the agreement.

The groups are at odds because some want mandatory requirements, among other things, to make sure member states share the information with one another.

MEPs in the civil liberties committee will vote on the text Thursday (10 December) before it goes to plenary vote in January or in February.

Earlier this year, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve lobbied MEPs to get the agreement signed.

This week, the French prime minister wrote to the Socialist leader in the EU Parliament, Gianni Pittella, urging him to "work on adopting this essential counter-terrorism text by the end of the year."

On Friday, he told reporters the ministerial agreement had ticked all the French demands.

Pressure to get the deal wrapped has also mounted considerably since 130 people were gunned down in Paris in November.

German centre-right MEP Monika Hohlmeier, who speaks on behalf of the group in the civil liberties committee, told this website that she is still satisfied with the ministerial result.

"Nothing is perfect but this is a very very good basis and a very good result. I am really thankful for the ministers of interior that they have decided quickly and it is now the parliament to decide quickly," she said.

The Socialists offered a similar line.

"We will look in detail at the text now agreed but we don't expect major problems, neither for the vote in the committee nor in the plenary", said the group's spokesperson, Utta Tuttlies.

Dutch liberal MEP Sophie In't Veld, for her part, said member states must be required to share information they gather to better crack down on terrorists.

The European Commission has also helped finance national PNR systems in 14 member states. In 2013, it awarded some €50 million towards the projects.

At €17.5 million, France received the biggest amount of the EU money to help set up its own system.

The United Kingdom is, for the moment, the only member state that has a fully fledged PNR system.

Focus

EU data chief says passenger information bill is unjustified

European data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, says there is not enough information to justify the necessity of the EU Passenger Name Record scheme, which stores and can divulge the personal details of passengers flying in and out of Europe.

EU agrees on Schengen checks for all

EU "collective reaction must be ruthless," said French minister, as controls are to be stepped up for migrants and EU nationals.

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