Passions run high in EU parliament debate over air passengers' privacy

Warring MEPs do battle over proposals to collect data for state security agencies

MEPs are massively split on whether or not to hand over air passengers’ personal data to security authorities.

Members of the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee debated the planned PNR (passenger name record) law that would involve storing all the information collected by airlines about passengers – including sensitive and personal information such as email addresses, credit card details, phone numbers, meal choices (halal, kosher, etc) for use by security agencies.

MEPs originally rejected the proposal last year but after months of pressure from national governments for increased access to personal data, it is now back on the table in a revised form. But even the revised text has attracted more than 800 amendments. Some are minor while others call for the proposal to be scrapped altogether.

Europarl’s resident “Mr Data” said there is no proof that data retention stops terrorism. In an impassioned speech, German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said it was “a scandal” that member states and the European Commission were still pushing for this law even after the European Court of Justice ruled blanket data retention illegal.

Mocking the position of the European People’s Party, he said: “Criminals adjust to retention loopholes, so why don’t we keep the data for 100 years? Or why don’t we retain data on train passengers? I could travel throughout Europe by train, am I not then a huge security threat? Or by car? Why don’t we track cars? Why don’t we just tape everything everyone does all the time? That is your [EPP] agenda.”

Britain's police forces retain the data of all persons arrested by them for 100 years, whether or not they are ever charged with a crime or found guilty.

Dutch MEP Sophie In’t Veld also rejected EPP claims that storage of passenger data would have prevented the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year.

However, Swedish MEP Kristina Winberg of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group, which includes British political party UKIP, said she didn’t “feel safe in my own country” and that PNR data retention was necessary. British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope added: “I am still convinced of the necessity and proportionality of the instrument. The threats we face are real and we need to find solutions.”

Albrecht rejected the idea that storing personal data will reduce the risk of terrorism and said that in fact blanket data retention hampers the work of security and law enforcement as is a drain on time, money and personnel. Kirkhope, whose job it is to find a compromise, admitted that MEPs are split: “Do we agree on every on this at the moment? No, but I do think we are trying to find solutions.”

The parliament’s Transport and Foreign Affairs committee have also proposed amendments to the current text. Once all the committees have voted on their recommendations, the Parliament as a whole will vote. Only then will discussions with member states and the Commission begin.

What will happen after that is not clear, but as digital rights group EDRi, which is heavily lobbying against the proposal, points out, the history of the law closely resembles that of the Data Retention Directive that was struck down by the European Court of Justice. Both were rejected by the civil liberties committee and dropped, only to be resurrected and fast-tracked following a terrorist attack. ®

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