US asks Europe to relax privacy rules for new airline deal

US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has asked the European Parliament to relax restrictions on the sharing of personal data provided by airlines to US authorities. The long-disputed issue must be settled by a July deadline.

Chertoff was addressing the Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs regarding passenger name records (PNR), the 34 pieces of information airlines provide to US authorities on every passenger flying from Europe to the US.

He asked that restrictions on the use of data, such as that which limits the dissemination of the information only to agencies with privacy safeguards as tight as those in the EU, be loosened. He said that wider sharing amongst all Government agencies was necessary if terrorist attacks were to be stopped.

The system was put in place after the terrorist attacks in the US of 9/11. He claimed this week that the system would have prevented those attacks happening almost six years ago.

"With three simple analytic moves, using this kind of data, we would have stopped them from coming into the US. It is difficult, in the face of that clear, tragic lesson of history to abandon a tool which at minimal cost to civic liberty has a tremendous potential to save lives,'' he said.

The deal was agreed by the European Commission but opposed on principle by the European Parliament. When it took a case to the European Court of Justice the agreement was ruled illegal, but only on a technicality.

An interim agreement which solved the legal technical problem but was almost identical in substance was introduced last year but expires in July. The EU and US must agree a deal by then or flights to the US could be seriously disrupted.

The European Parliament has consistently sought guarantees that data would be as well protected in the US as it is in the EU, which is a general condition for organisations handing over personal information to countries outside of the EU.

The US has generally more lax laws and processes when it comes to privacy and data protection, limiting the scope of the use of information handed to it by the EU.

The European Parliament is likely to remain sceptical about the need for the PNR programme and the safety of information once it reaches the US. The rapporteur responsible for PNR policy, Sophie in 't Veld, demanded of Chertoff if he was really interested in a compromise "instead imposing unilaterally US standards and wishes". She also asked Chertoff for evidence of how successful the scheme had been, but Chertoff only gave anecdotal answers.

"It is never justified to give unlimited and uncontrolled powers to any government," said in 't Veld.