Europe's dangerous refusal to share air-travel data

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 9:35 PM

THERE IS MUCH we do not know about the abortive attempt, apparently by al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), to plant bombs in civilian aircraft over Halloween weekend. But whatever U.S. and other intelligence agencies eventually conclude about that particular incident, it is a reminder of aviation's continuing vulnerability to terrorism. There is an unending race between those who wish to prevent a deadly attack and those who wish to perpetrate one. Cooperation between the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Europe is essential.

So it is distressing to consider the tension between the United States and Europe over aviation security. Specifically, the European Parliament is resisting the kind of sharing of airline passenger data and other personal information that U.S. officials regard as crucial to spotting potential terrorists - in particular the "Passenger Name Record" created each time a person books a flight or attempts to do so. These records typically contain such data as the passenger's itinerary, form of payment, age and address. U.S. officials say access to it aided in the capture of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be "underwear bomber."

European privacy advocates suggest that U.S. authorities can easily misuse such information. In past years, the executive branch of the European Union has agreed to share the data; but recent legal changes have given the European Parliament control over the issue. And that body, heavily influenced by privacy activists, has instructed the E.U. to drive a harder bargain with the United States in the current round of talks over renewing the data-sharing. Among the European Parliament's vaguely formluated demands are "effective independent oversight" of U.S. use of the data and a ban on "decisions having adverse effects on passengers . . . A human being must be involved before a passenger is denied boarding."

Obviously, when government gathers and "mines" a vast array of names, addresses and credit card numbers, there is potential for abuse. We're struck, though, by how little European critics of data-sharing have shown in the way of actual, as opposed to conceivable, harm. One oft-stated concern is that U.S. officials might use a request for halal meals to "profile" a passenger as a Muslim and therefore subject him or her to extra scrutiny. But that would be true for any passenger named "Muhammad" - and no one is proposing to forbid sharing passenger names. Recent events suggest that concerns over terrorism in the air are as serious as ever. The burden should be on the European Parliament to demonstrate why amorphous anxieties about privacy should trump them.


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