15th Oct 2019

EU legitimises US travel and bank data snoops

  • The US "war on terror" is being waged in European data pools as well as in Afghanistan (Photo: Wikipedia)

In the final hours of its six-month EU presidency, Germany has succeeded in taking two thorny issues in current transatlantic relations off the table - the US' access to data on European air passengers and financial transactions.

On Friday (29 June), EU diplomats are expected to give the final go-ahead to a tentative agreement on the so-called passenger name records (PNR) deal, tailored to end lengthy wrangling over how Washington can gain, store and use information about every European traveller crossing the Atlantic.

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Under the draft agreement, 34 pieces of data now collected by US law enforcement authorities will be reduced to 19 - including name, contact information, payment details, travel agency, itinerary and baggage information. Sensitive data such as ethnicity will not be listed, one EU diplomat said.

Washington will be allowed to store all data for seven years under an "active" or "operational" regime. Subsequently, it can extend this period for an additional eight years, but "dormant" data will be accessible under stricter rules.

The agreement - struck by US secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff, German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble and EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini during a joint video conference on Wednesday - will replace an interim agreement, due to fade out at the end of July.

It remains unclear whether Washington can simply pull data directly from airline computers instead of receiving them based on a formal request and whether American law enforcement agencies - such as the CIA, the FBI and customs authorities - may share the data and under what conditions.

In the course of negotiations, flexibility in both areas was the US key demand.

Currently, the US customs and border protection agency may share them with other agencies, as long as they apply data protection standards comparable to those of the 27-nation EU bloc.

SWIFT sorted out as well

Meanwhile on Thursday (28 June) another agreement - on how the United States will handle data on European financial transactions operated by Belgian consortium SWIFT - was also hammered out.

The US has committed itself to use any data received from SWIFT exclusively for counter-terrorism purposes. The information may be retained for a maximum of five years.

In addition, SWIFT will "adequately" protect the privacy of data according to EU principles as laid out in 2000, while the European Commission will appoint an "eminent European" who will carry out annual oversights of Washington's commitments.

"The EU and the USA have to join forces in the fight against terrorism, but these activities should be done in full respect of fundamental rights, including data protection rights and the right to privacy of EU citizens," EU home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini said.

SWIFT, which stands for the Society for Worldwide Inter-bank Financial Telecommunications, manages the SWIFT codes for international payments. It handles about 11 million financial transactions per day in more than 200 countries worldwide.

The SWIFT package

Normally, the package contains the names of the donor and receiver, the account number and bank address as well as the amount and the intended purpose of the transfer.

The deal formally rubber stamped by EU environment ministers today allows the US data searches to go on, but on more firm legal grounds.

Last June, SWIFT was thrust into the limelight, as it became clear that officials from the CIA, the FBI and other US agencies had since 2001 been allowed to inspect the transfers as part of their global fight against terrorism.

The Belgian senate subsequently opened a case on the affair and ruled that Brussels-based SWIFT broke privacy rules.

Mr Frattini called on respective financial institutions "to take all the necessary steps to ensure their quick compliance with European data protection law."

All banks using SWIFT have to inform its customers about such transfers from now on.

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