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article imageEU gives US go ahead for airline passenger data snooping

By Anne Sewell     Apr 19, 2012 in World
The EU Parliament has approved a controversial bill that will give the U.S. Department of Home Security access to airline passengers' personal information.
The bill has been held up for 2 years over privacy concerns, but was finally agreed by MEPs on Thursday by a vote of 409 for to 226 against.
This controversial bill will set out legal parameters that govern the transfer of the personal data of airline passengers to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The information is known as "Passenger Name Record" or PNR data, and is provided by travelers when they book an airline ticket, and collected by the airline staff during the reservation and check-in procedures.
Information included would be: names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, credit card numbers, travel agency data and even baggage information and seat number. It would also include more sensitive data such as ethnic origin, special requests for meals on religious grounds or even special assistance that might be required due to medical conditions.
This agreement would apply to all airlines that operate flights between EU countries and the U.S.A, and the list of airlines extends beyond European carriers to include any airlines that "incorporate or store data" in the EU and operate flights to or from the U.S.A.
The bill also covers issues such as purpose of the data use, storage periods, administrative and judicial redress and data protection safeguards.
Under the new agreement, after 6 months the data will be "depersonalized" meaning that data such as the passenger's name or contact details would be masked out.
After 5 years, the data would be moved into a "dormant database". However this information would still be held for a further 15 years before being fully "anonymized" by deleting all information which could identify the passenger. Data related to any specific case will be retained in an active PNR database until an investigation is completed.
The agreement has been a controversial one among MEPs with those who support it saying it is a crucial step in the fight against international terrorism. They say that the use of PNR data could prevent, investigate, detect and even prosecute terrorism and also transnational crimes. Also they say it would serve "to identify persons who would be subject to closer questioning or examination".
Critics on the other hand have said that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could use the information in other cases if so ordered by a U.S. court. Some MEPs have alleged that their colleagues who are in favour of the agreement have been "held to ransom" by U.S. authorities, who have threatened to suspend visa-free travel to the U.S.A. if the bill is rejected.
The opposing MEP's also feel that this deal is incompatible with the fundamental right of data protection and are concerned about the conditions and duration of the data storage. They feel that the period of data storage is too long and that the database could be used to investigate minor customs and immigration offenses that are not linked to terrorism.
If this new agreement is finalised, it will replace another which was provisionally applied for in 2007. The EU Parliament refused to vote on the older deal as they believed it offered too little privacy protection of the personal data. This then forced Washington and the EU to negotiate a new deal in May 2010.
In October 2011, the EU agreed to a similar deal with Australia, which will allow the Australian authorities to store passenger data for five and a half years. At present, a similar deal is being negotiated with Canada.
April 26 is the date set for Home Affairs and Justice Ministers to formally approve this agreement and once done it will apply for the next 7 years.
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