U.S. Seeks to Expand Data-Sharing

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The United States is seeking to expand a post-Sept. 11 data-sharing agreement with the European Union to enable the Department of Homeland Security to retain airline passenger data longer than a few years and to share the data more freely with law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The agreement, which grew out of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 and took effect in March 2004, obliges all foreign carriers flying from Europe to the United States to share airline passenger data with Customs and Border Protection agents. The arrangement has raised concerns among privacy advocates and politicians in Europe over sovereignty and privacy issues.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman, Jarrod Agen, said yesterday that the information, which includes passengers' names, addresses, credit card details, travel itineraries, and hotel and rental car information, was "essential . . . to identify potential terrorists that we don't already have on our watchlist." The information is part of a database called the Passenger Name Record.

The negotiations, which began several months ago, are part of an ongoing debate between the United States and the European Union over how much personal information can and should be exchanged to enhance security without violating privacy.

The European Court of Justice reviewed the original agreement and on May 30 struck it down, finding problems with the legal basis that the European Council of Ministers used in entering into the pact. The court gave Europe and the United States until Sept. 30 to renegotiate the deal. E.U. officials said that they were not inclined to alter its substance but that they would make its underpinnings conform to European law.

"To meet a relatively tight deadline, our view is we should keep the agreement as close as possible to the existing deal and leave any substantial changes to a later stage," said Anthony Gooch, a spokesman for the European Commission delegation to the United States. The agreement's terms provide for the pact to be revisited in 2007, he said.

When negotiating the initial agreement, the United States sought to hold Passenger Name Record data for 50 years. A compromise was reached at 3 1/2 years. Now, U.S. officials are hoping to persuade E.U. officials to bend a little more on data retention.

"When people are developing terror plots, sometimes it takes years to unfold," Agen said. "We wouldn't want five, six, seven years later to say we had that information but had to get rid of it."

The current agreement also puts restrictions on how data can be shared with other agencies. If, for instance, the Homeland Security Department learned that a suspected terrorist used a certain cellphone to purchase plane tickets, the agency wants to be able to share that phone number with the CIA, Agen said.

U.S. officials also initially wanted access to all 60 fields of data in passenger-reservation databases, such as religious identification and dietary preference. But E.U. officials objected, and a compromise of 34 fields was reached. The Homeland Security Department is not looking to expand the amount or type of passenger data shared, Agen said.

"There is a growing concern that European data is shared by default with the American government," said Simon Davies, director of the London-based Privacy International, an advocacy group. "That has become an issue of sovereign control with Europe. They say this is yet another attempt by the United States to wrestle control of European laws away from the Europeans, that this is yet another attempt to create a global center of gravity based in Washington, D.C."

E.U. officials are separately trying to negotiate an air passenger data-sharing agreement among their 25 member states. That proposal, which likely will be put before the European Council of Ministers by year's end, has "nothing to do" with the United States, said Friso Roscam Abbing, a spokesman for Franco Frattini, the European Commission's vice president for justice, freedom and security.

The proposal, which is still being refined, will not include sharing information about religion, health conditions or dietary requirements, Abbing said. "We are obliged to put forward proposals which ensure a respect for fundamental rights but which also makes sense for law enforcement authorities," he said.

He said the proposal dates to 2004.

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