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25th Aug 2019

MEPs set to back air-passenger data sharing

  • All EU states, except Denmark, will be a part of the new EU PNR scheme. (Photo: angeloangelo)

After five years of heated debate, the European parliament is set to approve an anti-terrorism law on Thursday (14 April) that will give national authorities sweeping access to airline passenger data.

"It is one all EU governments and indeed the United States government have requested as a very important tool to tackling terrorism," British conservative Timothy Kirkhope, who steered the bill through parliament, told reporters in Strasbourg.

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The EU passenger name records (PNR) bill is likely to pass despite widespread criticism from civil liberties defenders who say it will do little to prevent or tackle terrorism.

Defenders of the bill say it will help security services in the EU identify suspicious behavioural patterns in their efforts to crack down on potential terrorists and other criminals.

Information like passengers' names, travel dates, itinerary, and payment method will be retained for up to five years and masked after six months.

The data will be stored in new so-called Passenger Information Units to be set up in each EU member state. The units will pass on the information to the police where necessary.

The rules would apply to flights to and from destinations outside the EU, but member states can also apply them to flights inside the EU.

"EU governments have it made clear that they really do wish to begin operating the system almost immediately," noted Kirkhope.

Recent attacks in Europe have piled on the political pressure from capitals for EU lawmakers to pass the bill.

Critics point out that 15 out of the 17 attackers in Brussels, Copenhagen and Paris were already known to the police and that the real problem is the lack of information sharing among intelligence agencies.

Years and money

To address the gap, Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in’t Veld introduced a last-minute amendment to the bill that would have required a mandatory exchange of the air-travel data among all EU countries.

"It remains to be seen if we get the security that everybody has been talking about or whether this is just fake security," she said.

Kirkhope's bill requires authorities to share information only when it is requested.

Meanwhile, EU lawmakers are unable to estimate how much the new system will cost taxpayers.

But Giovanni Buttereli, the EU's top data protection supervisor, told this website last December that "establishing a new large scale database will require years and an unbelievable amount of money".

"To identify if someone is travelling outside the EU, we don't need an EU PNR. This data are already easily available in the airline reservation system," he noted.

That information is found in the EU's advanced passenger information (API) directive. API data includes the name, place of birth and nationality of the person, the passport number and expiry date.

But intense pressure and lobbying from France's prime minister Manuel Valls, who came to Strasbourg on Tuesday, helped push the bill to Thursday's vote.

Quiet financing

In a further twist, the EU commission had been quietly financing national PNR systems since 2013, long before the bill had been signed into law.

France received the biggest slice from the commission purse and was awarded €17.8 million, followed by the Netherlands at €5.7 million and Hungary at €5 million.

"You are delivering a symbolic measure at the cost of effective security and civil liberties of EU citizens," German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht told the Strasbourg assembly on Wednesday.

The EU also has PNR agreements with the Australia, Canada and the United States.

EU pushes for flight data bill after Brussels attacks

Leaders are asking for more intelligence sharing among EU states. But the message appears lost on some as EU states scramble to find a response to the intelligence gaps in the lead up to the Brussels attacks.

Investigation

EU may extend 'passenger name records' to rail and sea

Documents reveal that EU states are considering broadening requirements on keeping passenger records, currently only applicable to air carriers, to providers of other modes of transport.

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