Air Passenger Data Program Concerns European Officials

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

European officials yesterday joined the chorus of concern over a U.S. screening program that creates risk profiles for every air traveler entering or leaving the United States, and sought assurances that the system does not violate European privacy rights.

The European Commission sent a letter to the United States requesting confirmation that air passenger data shared with the United States are in accordance with a U.S.-European Union agreement signed in October, commission Vice President Franco Frattini told the European Parliament.

"I have always taken the position that travelers must be informed when their . . . data may be transferred to competent authorities of third countries," Frattini said.

At issue is the Automated Targeting System, a computerized screening program in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel make risk assessments on air cargo and passengers entering and leaving the country. The system allows authorities to retain the data for 40 years, with a goal of eventually making risk assessments on all travelers to and from the United States.

International air travelers have been profiled for about 10 years, Customs officials said, but that was not widely known until the passenger profiling system was described last month in a notice in the Federal Register.

Concerns quickly emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. privacy advocates charged that the profiling infringes on the privacy rights of U.S. citizens, a concern that Europeans are echoing.

Sophie in't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said this month that passengers are not told their travel data are recorded and made accessible to a wide range of agencies. "We cannot accept this excessive appetite for personal data without any kind of protection against mistakes and abuse by public authorities," she said.

In October, the E.U. and the United States renegotiated an agreement on passenger data that gave U.S. law enforcement agencies slightly more access to the data but set limits on its retention and sharing among agencies.

Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Customs agency, said that Customs is abiding by the October agreement, including a provision that data about passengers arriving from Europe be held for only 3 1/2 years.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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