Haggling Over Flight Data US Shuns European Privacy Concerns

The post-Sept. 11 flight data sharing agreement between the US and EU expires in July. But a new agreement is nowhere in sight. The Americans want to know even more, and the Europeans want to tell them even less.

By in Brussels

The US wants to know everything about who is on trans-Atlantic flights.

The US wants to know everything about who is on trans-Atlantic flights.

Michael Chertoff's logic sounded convincing. Earlier this week, the US Secretary of Homeland Security provided the European Parliament with a succinct explanation as to how the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks could have been prevented. Had US authorities already been in possession of the so-called Passenger Name Record (PNR) -- which includes 34 items of data about every person travelling to the US -- before the attacks, Chertoff said, then 11 out of the 19 hijackers would have been denied entrance to the US. Consequently, Chertoff said, 9/11 would probably never have happened.

Chertoff, in fact, wasn't shy about sprinkling his talk with references to Sept. 11 and to the continuing threat of terror at his delicate meeting in Brussels. It was his first opportunity to address the European Parliament about an issue that is extremely contentious in Europe: How much information should US authorities be given about travellers from EU countries flying to the US? Chertoff used the opportunity to plea for greater data-sharing. "We need a network of free people, because we share the same values," Chertoff said.

Not much new came from the meeting. Still Chertoff's appearance reflected just how controversial the issue is. If no new agreement is reached by July 2007, the simplified process through which millions of EU citizens enter the US could become a thing of the past. The unpleasant task of finding a compromise falls on the Germans, since they currently hold the rotating EU presidency. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Chertoff may like each other and hold similar views, but in this case, the man Chertoff likes to call "my friend Wolfgang" represents the EU and is on a short leash.

The idea for an agreement on air passenger data-sharing goes back to the period of hysteria that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. At the time, the United States demanded that foreign airlines transfer entire packets of data on travellers to the US, so potential terrorists could be tracked. Currently, airlines transfer 34 pieces of data, including postal addresses, email addresses and credit card numbers, as well as food preferences and a list of unboarded flights -- the "no-shows." This agreement expires in July.

The trench widens

Even the existing agreement is seen with some skepticism in the European Parliament. And the myriad concerns and questions raised during the brief question and answer session following Chertoff's talk showed just how deep that skepticism runs. Most striking, however, was that the session repeatedly turned into an obscure, would-be trial about the US's many lapses over the past years: From Abu Ghraib and illegal kidnappings by the CIA to gun laws, every gripe was fair game. Chertoff ignored just as many questions as he answered.

And the sensitive issue of passenger data went unsolved. Interior Minister Schäuble was still optimistic a few weeks ago, but this week he was no longer talking about the prospect of success. Only Franco Frattini -- European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security -- kept repeating that he believes there is a "good chance" a solution can be reached before the deadline. Schäuble's chief negotiator recently called the ongoing wrangle with the US a "difficult issue." Still, he added that they are negotiating "with friends" and the "good will to achieve a solution" is there.

It's precisely this view of things that has changed in the Interior Ministry. Meetings with the US side have become quite unpopular. "The gap between the desired outcomes has widened further during the past months," says one high-ranking Schäuble associate. "So, sitting down together is not much fun." While the Germans, acting as representatives of the EU, are pressing for less rather than more data transfer, the US counters with entirely new demands for more and earlier data transfers, including information that was never on the agenda before.

For the moment, no one in Berlin is expecting to come to a quick agreement. "During the last meetings, we'll try to at least preserve a good atmosphere, so things don't fall apart entirely," one Interior Ministry source following the talks closely says with a groan. The final hope is that time will bring the two negotiating partners back together. If no new agreement is reached by the end of July, the procedure for EU citizens entering the United States will be completely unclear. "Perhaps a compromise will now be reached at the last minute," an Interior Ministry source hopes.

That seems unlikely given the rift between the opposing viewpoints. The US would like to be sent even more information, on the basis of which even more complete profiles of travellers can be assembled. The Americans' dream agreement would allow them to pull the data directly from the airlines' computer servers and store the information for 99 years.

The EU, for its part, would like to remove some data categories from the list of 34, thereby reducing the amount of information transferred. In addition, many EU member countries want to ensure that only certain US authorities have access to the databases. They also want the data to be saved only for a limited period of time.

Prior to this week's meeting with the European Parliament in Brussels, the US had made its stance quite clear. Various EU ministers had already met with Chertoff in Venice, Italy during the weekend to discuss the passenger data issue. No one other than the United States will decide who enters the United States, Chertoff told US reporters at the mini-conference. He said they would not allow themselves to be "tied down" by the EU on the issue.

While the EU position is largely informed by privacy concerns, the US negotiators are backed by a number of compelling arguments. The foiled terror attack last summer, in which terrorists planned to explode up to 10 trans-Atlantic flights originating in Britain, is seen by the US as only the most recent example of the dangers air traffic still poses. They repeatedly stress the perils represented by thousands of Pakistanis who, equipped with British EU passports, can travel freely wherever they like -- including to a Jihadist training camp in Pakistan and, afterwards, to the US. American authorities say that visa regulations and the sharing of passenger data could close this security loophole.

"My way or the highway"

After the experiences of 9/11, US investigators are especially interested in more information on "no show" flights. In 2001, the 9/11 hijackers reserved flights for several days in a row, but then didn't show up as they were waiting for the appropriate weather. The US authorities also insist on the need for earlier data transfer, since the data have to be introduced into the so-called "Automatic Targeting System" in Washington, which contains suspicious data combinations and a list with the names of known terror suspects. That kind of data analysis makes earlier transfer absolutely essential, US authorities say.

Additional measures are already being debated openly in the US. For example, a plan for a simplified online questionnaire for flight passengers from the EU and other countries is currently before Congress. The plan would require passengers to submit a completed questionnaire detailing previous travel destinations along with other pieces of information to the Department of Homeland Security via the Internet two days before the flight. The advantage of this model is that passengers could be told before the departure of their flight that they won't get a visa, Chertoff said in Brussels.

Still, Chertoff's day in the European Parliament wasn't enough to win over the skeptics. Center-left parliamentarian Wolfgang Kreissl-Dörfler called Chertoff's performance "high cinema that raised more questions than it answered." The politician's main criticism was that the US is basically blackmailing Europe. In his view, Washington is forcing a simple alternative on the EU states: "My way or the highway." That is not, he says, the way to a solution, even if the deadline looms.


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