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E.U. agrees to ease U.S. access to passenger data

The Washington Post


European officials agreed Friday to grant more U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies easier access to detailed personal data on all trans-Atlantic air passengers, despite concerns over individual privacy and fears that the information could be misused.

The new agreement between the United States and the European Union provides for passengers' names, credit card numbers and other personal information to be passed to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The CIA and other intelligence agencies will not automatically receive the details on every passenger, but can obtain information on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

Under a previous agreement, the information was provided only to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, one part of DHS.

The European Union, which has some of the most stringent privacy protections in the world, has been critical of what it perceives as U.S. efforts to usurp the privacy of personal data, banking records and other information as part of its effort to identify potential terrorists.

While the European Commission originally approved an agreement with the United States on transfer of passenger data in 2004, the European Parliament &

the E.U. elected lawmaking body &

opposed it and challenged the deal in court.

French Justice Minister Pierre Sellal told reporters Friday that the new arrangement, reached after a nine-hour, trans-Atlantic video conference, "permits the United States to protect against terrorist attack, but at the same time safeguards the essential liberties of passengers."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered a similar view, saying in a statement that the agreement "promotes our joint goal of combating terrorism while respecting our joint commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, notably privacy."

Last May, Europe's highest court overturned the 2004 arrangement, saying it had been improperly drafted. As a result, airlines have been operating in a legal limbo since then, subject to possible lawsuits from passengers alleging privacy violations and facing potential fines or landing rights refusals from the United States for failure to provide the data.

"This is an important agreement that will ensure normal operations for the 105,000 passengers who fly between these two jurisdictions each day," Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a statement.

But some European officials remain skeptical of the new agreement, which requires airlines to provide the data to the U.S. government within 15 minutes of takeoff for the United States.

"The E.U. has once again caved in to U.S. pressure at the expense of E.U. citizens' civil liberties," Cem Oezdemir, a German member of the European Parliament, said in a statement released in Brussels, Belgium. He said the new accord "allows the continued plundering of E.U. passengers' personal information."

U.S. officials say they need passengers' personal information to identify potential terrorists. The new agreement does not change the type of information to be provided on each passenger. It will include name, address, credit card information, frequent flier number, telephone and e-mail contacts and the "no show" history of the person.

E.U. officials said the deal does not require airlines to provide some data that could be used to identify racial origin, political opinions or health and sex life. For example, airlines would not be ordered to give U.S. authorities details of meal orders, which could identify a passenger's religious or ethnic background.

Officials declined to provide information on how the agencies would be forced to give up the information after the time limit expired.

The new agreement "will guarantee legal continuity on a very sensitive matter," Franco Frattini, the E.U. justice commissioner, told reporters in Luxembourg. "We are not talking about more data or more exchanges; we are talking about making it easier to transmit data," Frattini said.