The amount of information about European airline passengers which is made available to the United States has been a bone of contention ever since the War on Terror began. The US says it needs the data to stop terrorism, while the European Union has concerns about privacy. Now the two sides have hammered out a new agreement on what passenger flight data can be shared, and for how long.
The deal, which was announced Wednesday, was reached in talks between European Union Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who was representing the EU as Germany currently holds the rotating EU presidency, and US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The deal must still be endorsed by the EU's 27 member states. It will be put to envoys Friday for their approval.
Currently only an interim agreement is in place, reached after a previous deal lapsed in October 2006. The existing deal expires at the end of July. There was pressure on the two sides to reach a new deal before the deadline to avoid possible disruptions. The US had warned that airlines failing to share passenger data would face fines of up to US$6,000 (€4,460) per passenger and the loss of landing rights.
The US says it needs the passenger data to combat terrorism. The data is analyzed and potential suspects are interviewed or barred from entering the country. "If we had had a program prior to Sept. 11 where we were able to get information about how everybody paid for a ticket -- including a contact telephone number and a seat number -- we would have been able within a matter of moments to identify 11 of the 19 hijackers who came into the United States," said Chertoff in a recent interview with DER SPIEGEL.
However EU officials have concerns that sharing the data violates citizens' right to privacy. Frattini reportedly insisted during talks that only data which was really relevant for avoiding attacks should be stored.
Currently, a maximum of 34 pieces of recorded data, including passenger names, addresses, seat numbers and credit card and travel details, are transferred to US authorities within 15 minutes of a flight's departure for the US.
Details of the new deal were not immediately available. However information from EU sources suggested that under the new draft agreement the 34 types of data now transferred would be reduced to 19 types. The US would be able to store the data for up to 15 years, but after the first seven years it would only be able to access the data under strict conditions.