EU Data Protection Head Criticises Flight Data Bill

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Contentious ruling would allow security services to access flight details on all passengers flying into or out of the EU

Europe’s data protection watchdog has criticised a bill that would collect the personal details of anyone taking a commercial flight in or out of Europe and hand it over to security officials, calling the measure unreasonable and unjustified.

The bill, called the EU Passenger Name Record (EU PNR), is intended to fight crime and terrorism, and was initially proposed in 2011, but was blocked by the European parliament’s civil liberties committee in 2013. It was then pushed through in the climate of increased tension that followed the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris earlier this year.


‘Indiscriminate’ data collection

In an official opinion published on Friday, European data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli said the bill is overly broad, arguing that security forces have presented no justification for the necessity of “massive, non-targeted and indiscriminate collection of passengers’ personal information”.

Buttarelli said the bill’s measures are disproportionate to the threat it has in view, and argued more targeted legislation should be considered.

“We encourage the legislators, in assessing the necessity of such a measure, to further explore the effectiveness of new investigative approaches as well as of more selective and less intrusive surveillance measures based on targeted categories of flights, passengers or countries,” he said.

The bill would grant security officials and police, including Europol, access to 19 pieces of passenger information, including travel dates, ticket information, contact details, means of payment, seat numbers and luggage details.

Stored for five years

The information would be stored for up to five years in a searchable database, with names anonymised after 30 days, but accessible upon request. The plan calls for the data to be deleted after five years.

Buttarelli recalled that the European Court of Justice last year struck down a similar law, the Data Retention Directive, because it was disproportionate and breached citizens’ right to privacy.

However, precedents for the bill exist in the form of the EU’s PNR agreements with the US and Australia. The US agreement, agreed in 2012, provides the US’ Department of Homeland Security with details on all passengers flying into the US, with the data being stored in an anonymised form for up to ten years.

MEPs are currently in talks with the European Council, made up of the ministers of member states, on a final version of the legal text of the bill, and hope to reach an agreement by the end of the year.

However, given the opposition of civil liberties groups, the bill could face legal hurdles that may prevent its passage into law.

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