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EU: Brussels Warns Of Trans-Atlantic Rift Over Airline Passenger Data

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The European Commission says a trans-Atlantic rift is in the offing over the U.S. refusal to honor EU data protection rules. Airlines operating between Europe and the United States have been forced by Washington to hand over traveler records in advance or face heavy fines. Although the EU initially sanctioned the deal, it now says the U.S. has failed to honor commitments to treat the data in accordance with EU standards.

Brussels, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission this week said it has not won any significant concessions from the United States over how the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense treats sensitive passenger information handed over by European airlines flying to U.S. airports.

The EU sanctioned the sharing of passenger data with the United States in February, and U.S. border and customs authorities have enjoyed free access to online reservation databases since 5 March. The United States says such access is vital to screen potential terrorists and criminals before they arrive in the country. It has also threatened to impose heavy fines on airlines for not complying with the request.

The commission said this week that despite "very frequent" contacts with U.S. officials the United States has not honored a commitment undertaken in February to treat the data in what it calls an "appropriate" manner -- that is, in conformity with EU data protection rules.

Jonathan Todd is a European Commission spokesman. He says a number of key EU concerns remain unaddressed by Washington.

"We have a number of concerns. For example, the directive requires data to be used for a specific purpose," Todd said. "That's one of the main principles of the directive. Another principle where we have some concerns with the Americans still is that the subject of the data -- you and I, for example -- must have a means of redress. If, for example, you or I are concerned that somebody holds data on us which is incorrect or misleading, we need to be in a position to be able to challenge that data in an independent manner."

The commission has made public a letter sent in mid-June by the EU's responsible commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, to Tom Ridge, head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In the letter, Bolkestein says the EU's concerns go beyond legal assurances and have to do with fundamental rights and liberties that are "fiercely cherished in the EU." He ends the letter by warning that what he calls a "highly charged trans-Atlantic confrontation" may be in the offing.

Yesterday, Todd said the United States -- despite promises made in February -- has not installed a filter to screen out nonessential passenger data, such as contact telephone numbers and credit-card numbers.

The EU also is worried about its lack of control over how passenger data is distributed further by U.S. customs authorities. The U.S. has said passenger data would be relayed to other U.S. authorities for purposes of "national security" or simply "law enforcement."

The decision to pass on sensitive information will be made by the U.S. deputy commissioner of customs.

Todd said the U.S. position has not changed since Bolkestein sent his letter. He warned that the present arrangement is transitional and that a legally binding and mutually satisfactory agreement must be reached by the two sides to avoid conflict.

He said that, for now, EU airlines are operating in legislative limbo: "In the meantime the [EU] data protection directive applies, and that requires that adequate protection be given to this data. Now, that means that if a national data protection authority [in the EU] considers that this data does not enjoy adequate protection, then they're obliged under the directive to intervene, to block the data, or to require certain undertakings to be given by the airlines.

Potentially, that would therefore mean that an airline or a computer reservation system could find itself fined by a national data protection authority for supplying the data, and fined by the American authorities for not supplying the data."

Todd said the EU acknowledges that the United States has legitimate security concerns but indicated the present situation is unacceptable. He said a commission meeting in early October will consider how to resolve the issue.

Todd said the deputy head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, William Asa Hutchinson, will travel to Brussels on 22 September for talks with EU officials.