EU data protection chief questions passenger records plan

Europe's top data protection official, European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx, criticized plans to create a European equivalent of the passenger name records (PNR) gathered by U.S. authorities, questioning the plan's necessity and proportionality.

"The fight against terrorism can be a legitimate ground to apply exceptions to the fundamental rights to privacy and data protection, but only within certain limits," Hustinx said in a statement on Thursday.

"The necessity of intended measures must be supported by clear and undeniable elements, and their proportionality must be demonstrated. These two aspects are essential conditions and they are clearly not fulfilled in this case," he said.

The U.S. introduced PNR gathering in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. After some initial resistance, the European Union agreed to allow airlines to hand over to American authorities details about passengers flying from the E.U. to the U.S., before a flights' departure.

Since then Madrid and London have been attacked by suicide bombers, stiffening the resolve of European politicians to tighten security further.

Last month the European Commission proposed a raft of pan-E.U. antiterrorism measures, including a PNR gathering system for all flights into the E.U. Under the proposed plan, air carriers would be obliged to hand over 19 pieces of passenger information, including the name, address, passport number, credit-card number and history of changes in any flight schedule. The data would be retained for up to 13 years and be shared between authorities in all E.U. member states.

This is very similar to the shape of the PNR agreement reached with the U.S. in June. Airlines have to hand over 19 details about passengers on flights to the U.S., and the U.S. authorities can keep the information for up to 15 years.

Hustinx said the E.U. PNR plan would have "a major impact on privacy and data protection rights of air passengers."

He also criticized the agreement for its lack of clarity. In particular, he pointed out that the Commission's proposal doesn't say what the applicable legal framework for the plan would be, doesn't specify which authorities should have access to the data and fails to give rules on transferring passenger data outside of the E.U.

Hustinx urged E.U. lawmakers to delay the PNR plan until after the recently agreed Lisbon Treaty comes into force, which is expected within the next year once each member state ratifies it in its national parliament.

The treaty would force the Council of national governments to reach agreement with the European Parliament on the PNR plan. Currently the Council can decide on the matter by itself

Many parliamentarians are bitterly opposed to the E.U./U.S. PNR agreement and to the E.U. PNR plan.

The European Commission wasn't immediately available to comment on Hustinx's comments.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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