EU States Back Long-Delayed Plan to Track Air-Passenger Data

  • Law proposed in 2007 lingered until Paris terrorist attacks
  • Focus now shifts to possible opposition in European Parliament

European Union governments opened a new front in the fight against terrorism by backing long-delayed, U.S.-inspired plans for the tracking of passenger data on flights to, from and within the bloc.

The European law would stop short of forcing the 28 EU governments to share or pool the data, a potential flaw in a system meant to hunt down suspects who slip across borders. It could take a year for the monitoring system to get going.

The anti-terror law offered a lesson in the slow pace of multinational decision-making machinery. First proposed in 2007, it was held up by the European Parliament on personal-privacy grounds and lingered until the Paris mass murders of Nov. 13 gave it new urgency.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the legislation “indispensable.” Speaking at an EU meeting in Brussels on Friday, he said “terrorists take flights within Europe and we have to be able to trace them.”

Stumbling Block

The Parliament remains a stumbling block. While a committee of EU parliamentarians endorsed the compromise on Dec. 2, some have threatened to object when it comes before the full assembly. A Parliament committee will weigh in on Dec. 10, followed by a plenary vote in early 2016.

Timothy Kirkhope, a British Conservative who negotiated for the EU Parliament, said on Twitter that the accord is “effective and balanced.”

While the Parliament limited the law to scheduled air traffic to and from the EU, it allowed the governments to issue a declaration that they will capture data on internal flights as well. The record keeping will go beyond airlines to include charter flights.

Six-Month Limit

Questions of data privacy, frequently more sensitive in Europe than in the U.S., dominated the final discussions. Parliament put a six-month limit on the retention of data such as name, address, frequent flier and credit-card number that could be used to pick individual passengers out of a crowd.

After that, the personal identifiers will be “anonymized” or “masked out,” though could be re-accessed on a judge’s order. Governments will store the data mass for a total of five years.

“There is no time to lose,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters. “The agreement is balanced, proportionate and will help to improve the security of citizens while respecting their rights.”

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