Brussels, Sept. 21 (Reuters): US security concerns clash with European civil liberty worries this week at talks between US and EU officials in Washington over personal data on airline passengers.
The US wants EU airlines to hand over personal information on passengers crossing the Atlantic, part of intensified efforts by Washington to defuse terrorist threats after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein meets Asa Hutchinson, under-secretary for border and transportation security at the US department for homeland security tomorrow to discuss the US request.
But privacy advocates have urged the European Commission to insist that the US comply with EU privacy rules when handling such data. Some fear the information could be misused and result in people being mistakenly questioned or arrested.
“European airline passengers have reason to worry about the current situation,” said Maurice Wessling, head of privacy group European Digital Rights.
“If European travellers are unfairly stopped and searched at airports, or even barred access to the US, they will find it impossible to find out which data have been the cause of these restrictions,” he said.
Hoping to catch potential terrorists before they board a US-bound plane, US authorities are asking airlines to grant them access to travellers’ booking files or face heavy fines. These files, known as Passenger Name Records (PNR), contain data such as name, address and phone number but also credit card numbers, e-mail address and dietary preferences.
A computer processes the data and creates profiles for each passenger. Passengers with suspicious profiles face lengthy questioning and may miss connecting flights. The data will be stored for up to seven years and it is unclear whether passengers could take action if they were wrongly detained.
Major airlines including British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa have been handing over the PNR data since March.
“It must be said some improvements in the way the US process PNR data have been made,” Bolkestein said recently. “But unfortunately not to the point where the Commission can regard the requirement of ‘adequate protection’ have been met.”
According to the New York Times, US discount carrier JetBlue Airways admitted on Friday it breached its own privacy pledges by providing a Pentagon contractor personal information on over one million passengers.