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EU Plans Anti-Terror Air Passenger Screening System

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, November 2, 2007

EU Plans Anti-Terror Air Passenger Screening System

(CNSNews.com) - The European Union's top security official will next week propose setting up a procedure to collect information on airline passengers flying into the 27-nation bloc, a measure similar to one established by the U.S. after 9/11.

Franco Frattini, the European justice commissioner, will include the proposal for the Passenger Name Record (PNR) system in a package to be presented to the E.U.'s Executive Commission on Tuesday.

Other measures he will put forward aimed at strengthening E.U. counter-terrorism include steps to outlaw the use of the Internet to incite or plot terrorist attacks.

Frattini wants to add the proposals to the E.U.'s first union-wide anti-terror legislation, which was adopted in 2002.

The PNR plan will allow E.U. governments to retain information on airline passengers and to exchange it with other member-states when appropriate.

"The Union is at least as much a potential target of a terrorist attack as the United States, and the use and analysis of passenger name records is an important law enforcement tool to protect our citizens," Frattini told the European Parliament in September.

European civil libertarians are gearing up to challenge the move.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), a grouping of some 80 liberal parties represented in the European Parliament, is among those concerned about the proposal.

ALDE lawmakers have been questioning the European Commission about assessing the agreement on sharing passenger data with the U.S. and a similar arrangement involving Canada.

"Before proposing a European PNR system, ALDE believes it is imperative that it be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the effectiveness of the U.S. and Canada PNR systems," Sophie in't Veld, a Dutch member of the alliance, said in a statement.

She said the effectiveness of counter-terror policies needed to be regularly assessed, including their usefulness in reducing the threat and their impact on privacy and civil liberties.

When the U.S. first signed a PNR agreement with the E.U. in 2004, it required airlines to provide American authorities with 34 pieces of data on every passenger on a U.S.-bound flight.

Citing violation of privacy, civil liberty groups protested, and the European Parliament took the issue to Europe's highest court. In June 2006, the European Court of Justice overturned the agreement on a technicality, saying it was not "founded on an appropriate legal basis."

The two sides then negotiated a new agreement, which was signed last July after U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff wrote a letter to E.U. officials explaining how the data would be used.

The new agreement reduced to 19 the data fields airlines must supply. They include contact details, travel itinerary, billing information, type of ticket, seat information and baggage details.

In his letter, Chertoff referred to concerns about the collection of potentially sensitive information, such as data revealing ethnic origins, political opinions, religious beliefs or trade union membership. Any such data would be promptly deleted in most cases, he said.

In an exceptional case if lives could be at stake, DHS officials may use that information, but they would delete it within 30 days once the purpose for which it had been retained had been accomplished, he said.

In recent congressional testimony, Chertoff said PNR information had helped "significantly in combating potential threats."

He cited an incident in April 2006 when law enforcement officials armed with PNR data identified two passengers at Boston's Logan Airport whose travel patterns exhibited high-risk indicators.

During secondary interviewing, one had said he was traveling to the U.S. on business for a group suspected of having financial ties to al Qaeda.

The AFL-CIO last month complained in a letter to Chertoff about the need to take information on passengers' union membership.

"Even the suggestion that union membership is somehow indicative of a threat to security is offensive to the millions of workers we are proud to represent," wrote the labor union's president, John Sweeney, and head of its transportation trades department, Edward Wytkind.

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