24th Nov 2020

Passenger data deal key to catching terrorists, says US

  • Data on EU passengers is kept for 15 years by US authorities (Photo: Wikipedia)

A provisional deal allowing American authorities to tap into the data of EU air passengers crossing the Atlantic helped find a third of the "hundreds" of terrorism suspects identified last year, a US official has said, in a bid to convince wary euro-deputies to approve the agreement.

The so-called Passenger Name Records (PNR) agreement has been provisionally in force since 2007, but now requires ratification by the European Parliament, whose powers were enhanced in December with the entering into force of a new EU legal framework, the Lisbon Treaty.

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An early version of the deal, signed in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, was struck down in 2006 by the European Court of Justice because of a faulty legal base.

"It's not my job to tell the European Parliament what to do. What I can say is that the US is very supportive of the PNR agreement and we think it's been very successful in countering both terrorism as well as serious transnational crimes," Mary Ellen Callahan, dealing with data protection within the US department of homeland security told Brussels journalists on Monday, before meeting members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Washington already experienced a first blow last month to its anti-terrorism strategy when MEPs rejected another interim agreement allowing US investigators to track down terrorist funding by accessing data on European bank transfers. Parliament's rejection came despite diplomatic pressure from the Obama administration.

Ms Callahan insisted that her mission to Brussels and Strasbourg should not be labelled as "lobbying," but rather as informing EU lawmakers about the data protection measures included in the provisional deal.

Under the PNR agreement, airliners operating transatlantic flights are required to pass on to US authorities 19 types of information, including names, birth dates, addresses, bank card data, seat numbers and travel itinerary. The data is stored by the US department of homeland security for seven years from the day of collection and for another eight in "cold storage," accessible only in exceptional circumstances.

During a debate at The Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, Ms Callahan said that the PNR agreement was useful in identifying "one third of the terrorists or potential terrorists that the US identified last year," with the total running into the "hundreds."

She stressed that there were very strict requirements on the use of the data, especially when it is sent to other governmental agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

"We can share PNR data with other agencies in the US dealing with terrorism investigations, serious transnational crimes and arrest requests. The number of times we've shared PNR information is 216 times, mostly with the Department of Justice for litigation purposes," the US official said.

Last week, a first debate in the key committee dealing with this agreement indicated that MEPs find these reassurances too weak and would prefer a new agreement encompassing more data protection measures.

Yet instead of a thumbs down, as was the case with the so-called Swift agreement on the bank data transfers, the parliament is now looking at postponing the vote until the European Commission comes up with a broader framework, setting out rules for all such deals on air passengers data – for instance with Canada and Australia.

Meanwhile, EU interior ministers are pushing for a similar agreement allowing national prosecutors to tap on intra-European flights data as part of the fight against terrorism and serious crime. An overarching framework on all sorts of data transfers is also being drafted by the European Commission.

"The US would strongly support having a binding agreement, so that we can define the privacy protections for any type of data exchange with the EU. Privacy protection is very important, but it also is important to have consistent application in each of the agreements," Ms Callahan said.

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