New EU passenger data measure gets warm reception at DHS

The European Union's vote to relax privacy restrictions on collecting and disseminating airline passenger data will help sharpen its anti-terrorism focus, said DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

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The European Union's vote to set up a new system to gather and transmit passenger data from airlines is a boon for law enforcement, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said.

The European Parliament voted on April 14 to require airlines to submit passenger data for all flights in and out of member nations under a Passenger Name Record (PNR) system. Covered data includes name, itinerary, contact information and payment details.

Under the rule, EU member nations would establish passenger information units to manage data collected by air carriers.

The proposal, which passed on a vote of 461 to 179, awaits formal approval by the EU Council. Member states will have two years to incorporate the directive.

The EU had previously been reluctant to take on such measures because of strict privacy controls in many member states, and it has been critical of DHS' gathering of similar data in the past. However, EU officials said they had struck a balance between privacy and protection in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

"We have adopted an important new tool for fighting terrorists and traffickers," said Timothy Kirkhope, the European Parliament member who led negotiations on the legislation. "PNR is not a silver bullet, but countries that have national PNR systems have shown time and again that it is highly effective."

Under the proposed rules, the data must be retained for five years, but after six months, names, addresses and contact details that might lead to the identification of individuals would be stripped out, according to the EU. The passenger information units would be responsible for collecting, storing and processing the data and for transferring it to law enforcement agencies and other PIUs.

In an April 15 statement, Johnson praised the action, saying it would help law enforcement agencies prevent criminals and terrorists from boarding planes and help Europe prevent attacks against aviation targets.

"I look forward to a swift adoption of the directive by the Council of the European Union," Johnson added.