European airlines will soon share information about their passengers with U.S. officials so they can be screened for security reasons, under an agreement approved yesterday by the European Commission.
The agreement also calls for U.S. carriers to share information about their passengers with European Union countries. The data swapping would likely begin in the next several weeks, officials familiar with the talks said yesterday.
Under the terms of the deal, U.S. airlines would pass along information about each passenger such as name, date of birth, address and phone number to the European country of destination. In the United States, each passenger's information would be transferred to Customs and Border Protection agents and compared against various watch lists of known or suspected terrorists before the plane arrives in the United States. The information could also be used for international criminal probes such as drug trafficking.
U.S. Homeland Security officials agreed not to share the information with other agencies unless they can prove it is relevant to a criminal or intelligence investigation. U.S. officials also agreed to keep the data for 31/2 years instead of the initially proposed seven years.
The agreement contains no changes from one that was brokered last December but suffered several setbacks preventing final approval. The European Parliament, a representative body with lawmaking authority, claimed that the deal violated European privacy laws that restrict private companies and government from sharing private information. The parliament, which disapproved of the deal in a non-binding vote in March, referred the agreement to a European court to review the matter, which has yet to make a decision.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic had argued the agreement was necessary to improve security.
The European Commission in Brussels yesterday found that "adequate protection is being provided by the United States to allow us to provide personal data," spokesman Anthony Gooch said. To become official, the agreement must also be approved by the European Council of Foreign Ministers on Monday and European and U.S. officials must sign the documents.
A U.S. Homeland Security spokesman yesterday declined to comment on the European action, saying that the process still needs to be finished.
Air carriers were pleased with the news yesterday, saying they have felt sandwiched between legal requirements on either side of the Atlantic. They already share passenger data with the U.S. government under an informal but unofficial agreement.
"We certainly support the compromise and are anxious to have it completed," said David O'Connor, director of the U.S. office of the International Air Transport Association.