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EU: Brussels Grants U.S. Access To Trans-Atlantic Passenger Data

U.S. customs and border authorities now have full access to the passenger records of trans-Atlantic flights between Europe and the United States. The European Commission this week said U.S. authorities have promised to handle the potentially sensitive data "appropriately," but admit they have no safeguards.

Brussels, 6 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Months of intense pressure from the United States have led the European Union to approve a controversial move which gives U.S. authorities access to the passenger registers of European airlines.

Since yesterday, air carriers operating flights between Europe and the United States have EU authorization to open their online reservation systems to U.S. customs and border protection agencies. The U.S. has promised in return that any information gleaned from the system would be handled "appropriately."

U.S. officials say access to airline databases is vital to screen potential terrorists and criminals before they arrive in the country. It had also threatened to fine airlines not complying with the request.

Jonathan Todd, a European Commission spokesman in Brussels, said yesterday the EU had agreed to relax its data protection rules in exchange for a U.S. commitment to use only relevant information.

"We have agreed that sensitive data contained in the so-called passenger name record scheme will not be used by U.S. customs if it falls into categories identified as sensitive by EU data protection law -- for example, data revealing race or religion or concerning health."

As a rule, databases also contain passenger telephone numbers and credit card numbers.

Todd said a "special filter" would be introduced in U.S. customs and border control systems to prevent any further dissemination of such information. He said U.S. authorities have also undertaken not to use what he called "sensitive data" to identify potential passengers for examinations or controls.

The EU-U.S. agreement signed in late February allows U.S. customs and border protection agencies to relay passenger data 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.

EU officials say the EU will have no direct control over the way U.S. authorities use the data downloaded from flight databases. One said that similarly to all other agreements between the bloc and a non-EU country, the EU assumes "good faith" on the part of its partner.

Although commission officials yesterday insisted that U.S. access to databases would be restricted to trans-Atlantic flights alone, U.S. documentation annexed to a joint EU-U.S. statement two weeks ago says U.S. customs will access air carrier reservation systems directly.

The U.S. document says it would be "too costly" for carriers to select and transmit data to the U.S. Last month, EU officials also said "fencing off" non-trans-Atlantic flights in airline databases would be very expensive.

Observers say there is some concern that the U.S. will honor its pledge only to use data on passengers traveling to the United States.

EU officials say yesterday the arrangement is temporary and will eventually be replaced by more comprehensive rules "to create better legal certainty."