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E.U. Agrees To Ease U.S. Access to Data On Passengers

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By Molly Moore and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 7, 2006

PARIS, Oct. 6 -- European officials agreed Friday to grant U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies easier access to detailed personal data on transatlantic air passengers, despite concerns about individual privacy and fears that the information could be misused.

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The new pact, replacing one struck down by a European Union court in May, continues arrangements by which all passenger names, credit card numbers and other personal information are passed electronically to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

But it softens various restrictions on when and how that data can be passed to the CIA and other intelligence organizations.

Under the new system, "if we have particular interest in a number of flights, or a specific destination, then we can therefore use that information and share it with other counterterrorism agencies," said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the customs and border agency.

The data request must have some "specificity," he said, such as the recent alleged plot to bomb airliners flying from London. In that case, passenger information on flights from Britain to the United States could be shared with the FBI, he said.

The Europeans insisted on certain data protection safeguards. The U.S. agencies sharing the information, for instance, may retain the data for no more than 3 1/2 years, the same limit that applies to the border protection agency. And not everything that an airline knows about a passenger -- special meal requests, for instance -- will be turned over.

Many Europeans, living in countries with some of the most stringent privacy protections in the world, have been critical of what they perceive as U.S. efforts to usurp privacy of personal data, banking records and other information as part of attempts to identify potential terrorists.

In 2004, the European Commission -- the E.U.'s executive arm -- approved an agreement with the United States on the transfer of passenger data. But the European Parliament -- the E.U.'s elected lawmaking body -- challenged the deal in court, leading to it being overturned in May.

Pierre Sellal, France's permanent representative to the E.U., told reporters Friday that the new arrangement, reached after a nine-hour, transatlantic video conference, "permits the United States to protect against terrorist attack, but at the same time safeguards the essential liberties of passengers."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff offered a similar view.

But some European officials remain skeptical of the new agreement, which requires airlines to provide the data to the U.S. government on flights heading to the United States within 15 minutes of takeoff.

"The E.U. has once again caved in to U.S. pressure at the expense of E.U. citizens' civil liberties," Cem Oezdemir, a German member of the European Parliament, said in a statement released in Brussels. He said the new accord "allows the continued plundering of E.U. passengers' personal information."

"It's clear that the U.S. government continues to want more data than it needs to screen passengers and that it wants to use the data for purposes other than simply keeping dangerous people off of airplanes and in this agreement it has made some steps in that direction," said Jim Dempsey, policy director for the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

Since the court ruling in May, airlines have been operating in a legal limbo, subject to possible lawsuits from passengers alleging privacy violations and facing potential fines or landing-rights refusals from the United States if they fail to provide the data.

"This is an important agreement that will ensure normal operations for the 105,000 passengers who fly between these two jurisdictions each day," Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said in a statement.

The new agreement does not change the type of information to be provided on each passenger. It will include name, address, credit card information, frequent flier number, telephone and e-mail contacts and the history of the person's no-shows for flights.

E.U. officials said that airlines would not have to provide data that could be used to identify racial origin, political opinions, health and sex life. Meal orders, for instance, could help identify a passenger's religious or ethnic background.

Nakashima reported from Washington.


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