EU concerns on passenger data could cause rift with US

The European Commission this week warned that a trans-Atlantic row may soon result if U.S. demands for airlines to reveal passenger information as an antiterror measure aren’t backed by adequate privacy safeguards.

In a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, the European Union commissioner in charge of customs issues, Frits Bolkestein, said that only a “tightly worded undertaking” about the manner in which passenger information is handled and shared is acceptable.

“Data protection authorities here take the view that (passenger) data is flowing to the U.S. in breach of our Data Protection Directive,” Bolkestein said in his letter. “It is thus urgent to establish a framework which is more legally secure.”

The letter was originally sent to Ridge in June but was released to journalists this week after a meeting on the topic by European Commission representatives, who said they hadn’t won any significant concessions from the U.S. so far.

Discussions on the issue have been ongoing since December 2001, soon after the U.S. began requiring all airlines flying into the country to disclose the Passenger Name Record (PNR) of all passengers. PNR information typically includes names, travel routes, credit card numbers, special meals and other details, which U.S. authorities said they would need to identify potential terrorists entering the country.

The European Commission has been insisting on adequate privacy safeguards relating to the manner in which the data can be accessed and used by U.S. authorities. The privacy issues being raised are similar to the ones that U.S. businesses need to comply with when doing business in Europe.

The concerns relate to issues such as the purpose for which the data is used, stronger protection, filtering out of certain types of data and the need for a redress mechanism in cases where mistakes are made.

Nevertheless, under an interim agreement between the two sides, U.S. customs and immigration authorities have been accessing such information from European airlines since March.

“On a number of important points the U.S. undertakings fall short of what we need and it is urgent that these issues now be looked at from a political perspective,” Bolkestein’s letter said. Otherwise, there could be a “highly charged Trans-Atlantic confrontation” over the issue, he said.