Oct. 3, 2006 – A controversial personal-data-sharing program for airline passengers was suspended last week, after the United States and the European Union adjourned talks without reaching agreement on a new plan.
Officials failed to meet a court-imposed September 30 deadline to comply with a ruling by the European Court of Justice to develop a new agreement that did not violate European law.
The EU has been sharing some passenger data with the US since shortly after the September 11 terror attacks. But last May, the European Court struck down the deal between the US and the EU on the grounds that the processing and transfer of data – including passengers’ names, itineraries, addresses, telephone numbers and credit card information – violated EU law. The court gave the parties until the end of last month to reach a new agreement.
US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement that a new draft agreement will be forthcoming and that air traffic will continue to run as usual.
Washington, which said the program is necessary to discover "unknown terrorist threats," had previously threatened to revoke landing rights and to fine airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars for not participating in the "Passenger Name Record" (PNR) program.
According to a statement from the European Commission, while "much progress has already been made" in negotiations, the Commission urged the US to apply the previously negotiated data-protection safeguards until a new agreement is reached.
Many groups have said the safeguards in the original agreement were insufficient. Others have challenged the program as discriminatory. Holding up negotiations in the past was a disagreement over "sensitive categories" of information that could reveal racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade-union membership and data concerning the health or sex life of the individual. According to Department of Homeland Security, the US government agreed to limited use of such information.
But opponents of the program have voiced concerns that the US government will misuse the information.
Last April, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained an undated, secret "memorandum of understanding" between the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control describing how the agencies would share PNR data "to enhance the nation’s preparedness" against communicable diseases. The ACLU, in a statement, pointed out that this would have violated the agreement with the EU to only use PNR data to prevent terrorist acts or other serious crimes.