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EU passes airline passenger data law

April 14, 2016

The European Parliament has finally voted to allow airlines to share passenger information with EU states. The recent Islamist attacks in Europe reinforced calls for the adoption of anti-terrorism legislation.

A picture of European Parliament President Martin Schulz
European Parliament President Martin SchulzImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

The Strasbourg-based parliament overwhelmingly adopted the Passenger Name Record (PNR) system Thursday after resolving privacy concerns raised since the European Commission first proposed the bill in 2011.

"The EU PNR Directive will improve the safety and security of our citizens," the commission's first vice president, Frans Timmermans, and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a joint statement.

EU member countries now have two years to turn it into national law.

The vote came after interior ministers from the 28 EU nations in December finally settled privacy concerns that had stalled negotiations with the legislature since 2011.

"The European Parliament has today united beyond its political differences to bring a very large majority behind these pieces of legislation," the president of the parliament, Martin Schulz, said in a statement.

The law - which was passed with 416 votes for, 179 votes against and nine abstentions - had been stalled for years because of opposition within the parliament to a blanket collection of such data.

Devil in the detail

The PNR will gather name, travel dates, itinerary, ticket details, contact details, travel agent, means of payment, seat number and baggage information of all passengers traveling within the EU. The draft legislation will require airlines to share the passenger data with authorities in EU destination countries.

The PNR is designed to track not only potential jihadis but also criminals, including those who smuggle people, drugs or weapons.

About 5,000 Europeans are believed to have trained or fought in Syria and Iraq, but authorities are struggling to track their movements and prove their activities.

PNR can "identify the routes used by criminals and terrorists and prevent individuals from reaching their intended destinations or targets," Timothy Kirkhope, the British conservative MEP who steered the legislation through parliament, said.

British MEP on PNR system

Streamlining the system

Airlines operating flights between the EU and third countries, as well as intra-EU flights will transfer the data to national security services who could then share it with their European counterparts.

Many police forces already collect PNR data and many European states share it with each other and countries outside Europe. But the lack of a common EU system, including data formats, is seen to be weakening European security.

The data will be retained for five years but, in a nod to privacy campaigners, will be rendered anonymous after six months of storage.

The EU already has passenger data deals with the US, Canada and Australia.

"This is a strong expression of Europe's commitment to fight terrorism and organized crime together through enhanced cooperation and effective intelligence sharing," the commission said in a statement.

The law includes "robust privacy and data protection safeguards ensuring full compliance with the right to data protection," Avramopoulos and Timmermans said.

A picture taken during a press conference to present a police search notice for the abandoned white vest of the third terrorist suspect from the Brussels Airport attack, on Thursday 07 April 2016
A picture taken during a press conference to present a police search notice for the abandoned white vest of the third terrorist suspect from the Brussels Airport attack, on Thursday 07 April 2016Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Belga/E. Lalmand

Overcoming opposition

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Strasbourg Tuesday to lobby parliamentary groups, including fellow socialists, urging MEPs to show "responsibility" in the wake of the Brussels attacks. "The European PNR is an extra means we will have to be effective in the fight against terrorism," Valls said.

Some groups have opposed the measure, arguing it infringes on people's privacy and that security forces should share more existing information instead.

jbh/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP)