EU to collect data of international air travellers
Air travellers going in and out of the EU may soon have to give their personal details to national authorities in the member state of departure or arrival, if proposals set to be put forward by the EU commission on Wednesday are approved by governments and the European Parliament.
Under the proposal, all passengers flying for instance from Brussels to Istanbul will have their "Passenger Name Record" (PNR) data – including home address, mobile phone number, credit card information and email address – checked by a special unit of the Belgian police. Any suspected links with terrorism or serious crime – such as drug trafficking or people smuggling – will be shared with other member states and the suspects may be prevented from flying or even arrested.
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Intra-EU flights, from Rome to Athens or Tallinn to Warsaw, will not be covered for now, but the commission is likely to propose that such a step may be taken into consideration in a few years' time, if member states so require. This may clash with British desires – especially given the Olympic Games to be hosted in London in 2012 – to have an EU-wide system covering flights from one member state to another as well.
France, Denmark and Estonia are also supporting this idea, but are not as pushy as Britain, while Germany is expected to be more reluctant to have another massive data collection up and running in the EU. The Netherlands is in principle in favour of the EU system, but is focusing on a solution that would not cost companies and governments too much and that should be acceptable from a civil liberties and data protection point of view.
Apart from the various positions of member states, the European Parliament – so far a strong defender of data protection and civil liberties - will also have an equal footing in the negotiations which are expected to last two years.
"We are sceptical about the absolute necessity of a European system of flight data storage," German centre-right MEP Manfred Weber told this website.
The conservative politician, who specialises in justice and home affairs, predicted rocky negotiations with the European Parliament: "So far, the US and other countries using the PNR system have failed to convince us about its necessity. It would be much more important to connect the existing databases in various member states, for instance in an EU-wide anti-terrorism warning system."
"There are deficits in the usage of current data. So why should we collect even more mass data?" he asked.
With other data systems such as the EU emission trading records being recently hacked and sold on the black market, the collection of new private and credit card information poses additional questions.
Another area of concern for MEPs is the sharing of this data on EU citizens and travellers to the 27 member states. Currently, airlines flying into and over the US have to provide the American authorities will all PNR data of their passengers, under an agreement which is in force but still pending the approval of the European Parliament. Negotiations on a new deal have started, with MEPs again asking for concrete evidence that this program is really necessary.
Speaking to Brussels journalists on Tuesday, a US official said that 1800 persons were denied entry into the US in 2008, based on PNR data linking them to terrorist cells or organised crime rings. The official, requesting anonymity, declined however to say how many of those cases were finalised with a conviction in court. The figure is also very small compared to the over 80 million people flying into the US every year.
But the US government still makes the case for the "usefulness" of the program, even if the 72 hour-period prior to departure that authorities have to identify potential terrorists proved insufficient both for the 2009 Christmas bomber and the New York car bomb attacker who also flew into the US a few months before.
Independent Austrian MEP Martin Ehrenhauser, whose inquiry into another EU-US data transfer program (Swift) proved that intra-EU banking transactions are also forwarded to the US, despite assurances of the contrary, said the EU is simply not standing for the civil liberties and freedom it is preaching.
"Everyone now is a potential terrorist. This data collection is totally ridiculous. I feel like not flying at all anymore," Mr Ehrenhauser told EUobserver.
"Freedom is core to the EU and it should stand firm to demands of collecting everything we can get," he added.