Friday, April 15, 2016

EU approves air passenger data sharing, ending years of a standoff

The European Parliament (EP) voted on Thursday, while meeting for its plenary session here, that airlines should provide national authorities with data on their passengers for all flights originating from third countries, despite persistent doubts about the effectiveness of such a measure.

"We have adopted an important new tool for fighting terrorists and traffickers. By collecting, sharing and analysing PNR information our intelligence agencies can detect patterns of suspicious behaviour to be followed up," celebrated British rapporteur Timothy Kirkhope following the vote.

"PNR is not a silver bullet, but countries that have national PNR systems have shown time and again that it is highly effective," he affirmed, though his point of view is nevertheless not the unanimous perspective of the parliament.

The mechanism, adopted in the Strasbourg hemicycle by 461 votes in favor, 179 against and nine abstentions, has proven to be divisive in the EP, as much on the question of the balance between the fight against terrorism and the protection of citizens' data as on that of the limits of its effectiveness.

According to some Members of European Parliament (MEPs) and certain security experts, a measure like the PNR would be nothing more than a high tech variation of looking for a needle in a haystack.

By adding to the existing pile of a mountain of untargeted data, the mechanism will multiply exponentially the size of the haystack, while the number of needles will remain the same, they say. Security services will in this way risk drowning themselves in the masses of information, they warn.

The text, adopted despite being rejected by both the extreme right and the extreme left, as well as the Greens, indicates that member states should from now on move to create "Passenger Information Units" (PIUs) in order to handle PNR data collected by airlines.

The relevant data will be retained during a period of five years, but the data will be "masked out" after an initial period of six months, in other words, stripped of identifying information such as name, address and contact information, according to the directive.

Member states will be required to alert other countries if necessary. They will also be able to request PNR data from others, on their own initiative, within the framework of an investigation, plead the proponents of the measure.

Following the revelations in the investigations conducted after the brutal attacks in Paris and Brussels, however, the PNR's detractors will have an easy time expressing doubts and relaunching the debate on the effectiveness and the coordination of intelligence, surveillance and security mechanisms put in place by the French and Belgian governments.

The directive must now be approved formally by the European Council. The member states of the European Union will have a period of two years in which to transpose it into their national laws.
 [Xinhua -]

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