By Martin Banks - 19th April 2012
PNR data is crucial in the fight against serious crime and terrorism
Parliament has adopted a controversial agreement that will give the United States access to personal information about airline passengers.
MEPs in Strasbourg agreed on Thursday 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 key step in the fight against terrorism while others fear information could be used for other unspecified purposes which could affect civil rights.
The information includes names, addresses, credit card and phone numbers, but may also include sensitive data on an individual's ethnic origin, meal choices, health, political views and sex life.
The deal, aimed at protecting passenger safety in a tight framework that safeguards personal data, is the first of three currently in the pipeline - the other two agreements will be with the Australia and Canada.
Reaction was swift, with European Conservatives and Reformists group justice and home affairs spokesman Timothy Kirkhope saying, "PNR data has proven invaluable in the fight against terrorism.
"It has also played a significant role in tackling drug and people trafficking, and in tracking down murderers, gangsters and sex offenders.
"PNR data is crucial in the fight against serious crime and terrorism. This agreement will have a tangible and positive effect that most ordinary travellers will not see but terrorists and criminals should fear," he said.
Another voting in favour of the deal was ALDE member Sarah Ludford who said, "This agreement is not perfect. But it's a great deal better than the existing framework and, crucially, than any of the alternatives.
"There is no chance of the US improving their offer. If MEPs had rejected this deal it creates legal uncertainty, deprives us of any platform on which to build a better agreement, and leaves the field open to weaker bilateral accords which the EU will not be able to control," added the British deputy.
Ludford said she believed EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström had "secured important improvements in data protection guarantees".
She added, "I'm also encouraged by her strong commitment to review and monitor the agreement and if necessary call time on the Americans if they breach the safeguards. I am aware that a significant number of my Liberal group colleagues will join me in supporting a vote in favour."
"The EU must now use the successful adoption of this agreement to build momentum towards adoption of similar accords with the USA and Canada and finally, within the EU itself. An EU-wide agreement that allows PNR data to be transferred within Europe will ensure that there are no places for terrorists or criminals to hide," said Ludford.
The Greens group, in a statement, was less favourable, saying it believed the new agreement "fails to address the fundamental rights concerns raised by parliament and courts in Europe, notably as regards lengthy retention periods for data, as well as the profiling of individuals".
Elsewhere, the US ambassador to the EU, William Kennard "applauded" the outcome of the vote, saying, "Today’s vote reaffirms the shared commitment of the United States and the EU to the security of the travelling public.
"This agreement will also provide legal certainty for airlines and assure travellers that their privacy will be respected.
"PNR data has aided nearly every high profile US terrorist investigation in recent years, including New York City subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, and David Headley, who was involved in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack and was planning attacks in Europe.
"The agreement will also help to facilitate legitimate trade and support the transatlantic travel and tourism industry, which accounts for €55bn in trade each year," added Kennard.
Further comment came from the Association of European Airlines, which represents the European air industry. Its secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus said, "Europe's network airlines commend parliament for endorsing this agreement. This new deal gives airlines flying across the Atlantic a clear legal basis for compliance with US data requests."
"Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, airlines have received a growing number of data requests from governments around the world. The exchange of data between national agencies plays an essential role in the fight against terrorism, however airlines cannot legally provide 'passenger name record' (PNR) information until both sets of regulators have agreed on a clear data protection framework.
"Now the EU-US agreement has been finalised, AEA is urging European regulators to act on approaches from at least 11 countries which are seeking access to European airline data as part of their counter-terrorism strategy."
He went on, "The EU has been sitting on these requests for far too long. With every day that passes, European airlines are coming under growing pressure to provide this data, but they cannot and will not provide this information without the necessary legal framework. The EU must act soon or flights to these countries could be disrupted."