EU, U.S. Reach Deal on Sharing Passenger Data

LUXEMBOURG_The European Union and the United States agreed Friday on a new anti-terrorism agreement that will give the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies access to data about passengers on U.S.-bound flights.

The interim deal - reached after a nine-hour, trans-Atlantic video conference that took place nearly a week after negotiators missed an Oct. 1 deadline - replaces a 2004 air passenger privacy agreement the EU's high court voided last May for purely technical reasons.

The agreement is valid until July 2007, after which the EU and the U.S. plan to have a permanent accord. The 25 EU governments are expected to give final approval to the interim deal next week.

EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini welcomed the agreement, saying the United States and the EU will employ "comparable standards of data protection."

He said the deal should defuse fears in the European Parliament of a loss of privacy for Europeans flying to the United States.

Under the agreement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security no longer will have an automatic right to pull data from European airlines' computer systems, but must ask for such information.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency may disclose passenger data to other American law enforcement agencies only if "they have comparable standards of data protection," Frattini told reporters. He said it cannot give them direct electronic access to the data and limits the duration of its storage.

EU negotiator Jonathan Faull said the EU and the U.S. are aiming for a "broader" deal after July 2007 that would provide for sharing of more data than the 34 details listed under Friday's agreement.

British Home Secretary John Reid called the interim agreement "another major step in the fight against terrorism (showing that) the common alliance against terrorism is, on both sides of the Atlantic, very strong."

French Justice Minister Pascal Clement said the Europeans '"got concrete guarantees with respect to" privacy protection for EU nationals.

Negotiations collapsed last week when the EU denied a request by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for a more routine sharing of passenger data among U.S. law enforcement agencies.

The new agreement lets airlines continue to legally submit 34 pieces of data - such as passenger names, addresses, seat numbers, credit card and travel details, as well as their no-show records - for transfer to U.S. authorities within 15 minutes of a flight's departure for the United States.

Frattini said there was "a concrete risk" of privacy erosion had a trans-Atlantic accord not been reached. In that case, a patchwork of bilateral agreements would have been the privacy protection basis.

EU officials said they shared Washington's concerns about terrorism, but demanded strict data protection guarantees in return for a more routine sharing of personal details of air passengers among U.S. law enforcement officials.

Washington had warned that airlines failing to share passenger data would face fines of up to US$6,000 (€4,700) per passenger and the loss of landing rights.

The negotiations revealed divisions between the U.S. and the Europeans over how far governments should go in curbing personal freedoms to prevent terrorist attacks.

Privacy restrictions tend to be tougher in Europe than in the United States, and the Europeans wanted to deny U.S. officials the right to go into airline reservation systems.

Martine Roure, a spokesman for the Socialists, the European Parliament's second-largest group, expressed satisfaction "there is a new agreement. The U.S. authorities must now apply all the data protection guarantees we ask of them."

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 10/09/06>>