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21st Sep 2020

EU defends airline data-sharing after court ruling

  • PNR seen as important for maintaining US visa waivers (Photo: wilco737)

The European Commission has urged member states to continue sharing data on air passengers, despite a court ruling that put its legal model in doubt.

Julian King, the EU commissioner for security issues, told press in Brussels on Wednesday (26 July) that the verdict “does not affect member states’ obligations to implement what we agreed”.

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  • King: "Exchanges of information such as PNR are critical for ... security" (Photo: European Commission)

The EU has so-called Passenger Name Records (PNR) deals in place with Australia, Canada, and the US, as well as an internal EU version.

They enable security services to share data on issues such as travellers’ names, itineraries, payment methods, health problems, and dietary preferences in order to track terrorist suspects.

But the EU court in Luxembourg said earlier on Wednesday that the Canada deal went beyond what was needed and violated the “fundamental right to respect private life”.

King said the commission would “engage with Canada” in light of the ruling to see “what we're going to do to take account of the [court’s] points”.

But he added that “exchanges of information, such as PNR, are critical for the security of our citizens, and the European Commission will do what is necessary to ensure they can continue in accordance with the court's opinion”.

He said ten EU states were dragging their heels on transposing the EU’s PNR deal into national law in time for a deadline next May.

He said other countries worldwide would “also like to have agreements for PNR with us” later down the line.

Wednesday’s court verdict said that retention, transfer, and use of passenger data was legal.

But it said that the 2014 Canada deal, which has not yet entered into force, should specify what kinds of sensitive data could be shared and should restrict automated analysis of information.

It also said that letting Canada keep the data in huge banks for up to five years and to share it with non-EU states went too far.

"The PNR agreement may not be concluded in its current form because several of its provisions are incompatible with the fundamental rights recognised by the EU”, it said.

Fans of PNR, such as the centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament, backed King’s upbeat analysis of the court decision.

Axel Voss, a German EPP deputy, noted that the court had agreed on PNR “in principle,” despite its quibbles.

“The agreement itself has been confirmed even if some have tried to interpret the ECJ’s [EU court’s] decision differently,” he said, adding that “the protection of the data of all citizens is less important than the protection of the individual”.

Call for suspension

But for Jan Philipp Albrecht‏, a German green MEP, the ruling had more damaging implications.

“Everybody should know that therefore every other PNR agreement with the EU, the EU PNR and national PNRs are illegal too”, he said on Wednesday.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch Liberal deputy, said: “Today's ruling may have far-reaching consequences. The EU PNR directive and similar arrangements with the United States on PNR … could face challenges”.

The European Digital Rights group, a pro-privacy NGO, agreed.

"The proposed EU/Canada PNR agreement was considered to be the least restrictive of all of the EU's PNR agreements. To respect the ruling, the EU must now immediately suspend its deals with Australia and the United States," it said on Wednesday.

The US had threatened to suspend its visa waivers for the 23 EU states that have them if the PNR deal was not put in place.

Its concerns come amid estimates that up to 2,000 EU passport holders have gone to fight with the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.

King said that data-sharing was a more pressing issue than at any point in the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks in the US, due to a string of recent IS attacks in Europe.

EU trying to salvage US deal on data privacy

Privacy safeguards for EU citizens' personal data that is sent to the United States remains exposed to abuse, due to the lack of oversight and the shift towards increased surveillance under president Trump.

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