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Groups: Passenger data is flying to U.S. against EU laws

By Scarlet Pruitt, IDG News Service
May 06, 2003 12:41 PM ET

IDG News Service - A coalition of European privacy groups kicked off a campaign this week to ground the transfer of airline passenger data to U.S. authorities, claiming that the information exchange flies in the face of European Union privacy laws.

"There are no safeguards or restrictions on these data transfers," said Maurice Wessling, president of the European Digital Rights (EDRI) privacy coalition which represents 10 privacy and civil rights groups from seven EU countries.

The hubbub sprouts from an agreement that the European Commission (EC) reached with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency last March, in which it agreed to hand over online access to data from all Europe-based carriers that fly to, from or through the U.S.

The agreement was made as a result of the U.S.' efforts to tighten security following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and in the wake of the passing of the U.S. Aviation and Transport Security Act.

The problem, according to the privacy groups, is that the data transfer agreement goes against privacy laws requiring that transfer of data outside of the EU only take place when there is a similar level of privacy protection put in place, according to Wessling. The civil rights advocates claim that there are no limits on the sharing or retention of the data among U.S. agencies and therefore passengers' rights are affected.

"This information could go far beyond antiterrorism measures ... it could be used for anything," Wessling said.

Representatives for the EC were not immediately available to comment on the matter.

With its campaign, EDRI is hoping to make airline passengers aware of the data transfer and encourage them to write the EC with complaints. The EC could then investigate the complaints and rule that there is no legal basis for the transfers, according to Wessling.

According to the U.S.-based privacy group the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the EC is currently negotiating with the U.S. to restrict some access to passenger data in an effort to protect citizens' privacy. It remains to be seen, however, which compromises are agreed upon.

Representatives for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to immediately comment Tuesday.

The European privacy groups' campaign represents one in a series of backlashes against the U.S.' new antiterrorism laws, which have received flak from civil rights groups that say that they do more to curtail privacy than tighten security.

U.S. authorities argue, however, that they have worked to both tighten security and safeguard privacy.

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