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Transatlantic Travel

DW staff with wire reports (sp)June 28, 2007

The EU and the US reached agreement on sharing travel data on air passengers and US access to bank data. The US says they are key in its war against terrorism but Europeans worry the measures erode civil liberties.

The US stores information on all passengers flying into the country from the EUImage: AP

EU officials said Wednesday that the EU and the US had reached a deal following a meeting between Franco Frattini, the EU Justice and home affairs commissioner, Michael Chertoff, the US secretary for homeland security and Wolfgang Schäuble, the interior minister of Germany which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

"A political agreement in principle was reached," said Roscam Abbing, a spokesman for Frattini.

Data privacy a thorny issue

Data privacy has been a sticking point between the EU and the US ever since Washington intensified anti-terrorism efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Following the attacks on New York and Washington, the EU and the US signed an agreement under which the EU agreed to grant US authorities access to up to 34 categories of information on passengers on all flights to the US taking off from EU member states. These included names, addresses, phone numbers and credit card numbers of travelers.

That agreement, which is set to expire on July 31, had stirred unease among EU lawmakers amid mounting concerns that civil liberties were being eroded in the fight against global terrorism.

Russland Airbus A350 für Aeroflot
Flying to the US is usually a security hassle for passengersImage: AP

In a letter this month to interior and justice ministers of Portugal, which takes over the EU presidency from Germany next month, the European data protection supervisor, Peter Hustinx said EU governments were sacrificing too much of their citizens' privacy in the fight against terrorism.

"I fear that messages such as 'no right to privacy until life and security are guaranteed' are developing into a mantra suggesting that fundamental rights and freedoms are a luxury that security cannot afford," Hustinx wrote.

Last May, the air travel data deal was annulled by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the two sides reached an interim agreement. The EU had warned that airlines would be vulnerable to privacy complaints if no replacement deal had been reached before the interim one expired.

Though details of the accord reached this week have not been released, German Interior Minister Schäuble told an EU parliamentary briefing in Strasbourg that the aim was to reduce the number of stored data on passengers that the US currently receives from 34 to 20.

It remains unclear what pieces of personal data will be left out from the new US list. An EU diplomat said under the new arrangement the data would now be kept by the US for 15 years, up from 3 1/2 years in the interim agreement. The European side also sought to end the US ability to directly access flight booking computers, arguing instead that airlines should send the data.

Europeans are the biggest group of travelers to the US.

Deal on access to bank data

Separately, the US and the EU also struck a deal setting conditions for the US Treasury Department to view records of the international banking network SWIFT in anti-terrorism probes.

European civil liberties group watchdogs had complained that SWIFT, which handles global financial transfers and is based in Brussels, violated European privacy laws by allowing the US to secretly consult its records. Washington has argued that the access is essential for its drive to end funding to terror networks.

The US will now only use SWIFT data for counter-terrorism purposes and store it for a maximum of five years, according to the terms of the new deal.