MEPs back deal to give air passenger data to US

Passengers queuing at Heathrow airport
Image caption Passenger data is already sent to the US - but the new deal is said to tighten controls on its use

The European Parliament has adopted a controversial bill clarifying US access to personal data about airline passengers in the EU.

MEPs agreed by 409 votes to 226 to let the US Department of Homeland Security see data on the Passenger Name Record (PNR) , under strict controls.

Supporters say this is a vital step in the fight against terrorism.

But some fear information could be used for other unspecified purposes which could affect civil rights.

The agreement applies to airlines operating flights between any of the 27 EU countries and the US.

It covers not only European airlines but also any carriers that are "incorporated or storing data" in the EU and operating flights to or from the US.

The new agreement replaces a provisional 2007 EU-US deal, under which PNR data is already transferred to the US authorities.

But that deal was renegotiated, under pressure from the European Parliament, which insisted on firmer privacy safeguards.

The European Commission, which drafts EU law, says the new accord does provide more legal certainty and privacy safeguards.

Anti-terror monitoring

The PNR information includes names, addresses, credit card and phone numbers, but in some circumstances may also include sensitive data on an individual's ethnic origin, meal choices, health, political views or sex life.

The US authorities say they will "employ automated systems to filter and mask out sensitive data from PNR".

Sensitive data "could be used in exceptional circumstances when a person's life is at risk", a European Parliament statement said.

Such data would be accessed only case-by-case and would be permanently deleted 30 days after receipt unless needed for a specific investigation.

The deal says PNR data will be used exclusively to combat terrorism or fund-raising for terrorism, as well as trans-national crimes that incur a jail sentence of three years or more.

Although airlines already collect many details on passengers, from phone and credit card numbers to meal preferences and medical conditions, now they will transfer that data to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Privacy concerns

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Strasbourg says many questions remain about how the information will be used, how long the US will keep it, and who else might have access to it.

Some MEPs fear the deal sets a precedent and ask how the EU would respond if China or Russia asked for the same information, our correspondent says.

The European Parliament has approved a PNR deal with Australia and is negotiating one with Canada.

The deal approved on Thursday, which took several years to negotiate, says any passengers who believe their data has been misused will have access to US justice to seek redress.

PNR data will be stored in an active US database for up to five years. After the first six months all information which could be used to identify a passenger will be masked out.

Some MEPs say the proposals leave too many unanswered questions, such as how will the US use this information, how long will it keep the data and who will have access to it?

Dutch Liberal-Democrat MEP Sophie in 't Veld was involved in drafting the proposals but voted against the bill.

"The results of the vote show clearly that there are very strong reservations against this agreement. However, the US made it very clear that a 'no' vote would be answered by suspending visa-free travel to the US," she said.

"Many colleagues - understandably - did not want to make this sacrifice. But it is highly regrettable that the fundamental rights of EU citizens have been bargained away under pressure."

The US ambassador to the EU, William E Kennard, said the vote showed a joint EU-US "commitment to the security of the travelling public".

He said it would "provide legal certainty for airlines and assure travellers that their privacy will be respected".

According to British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, PNR data was "instrumental" in capturing collaborators of the 7 July 2005 London bombers and the 2008 Mumbai terror attackers.

He said PNR data had also "led to the capture of dozens of murderers, paedophiles and rapists" and "95% of all drug captures in Belgium and 85% in Sweden are caught using PNR data".

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