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Striking a balance between security and privacy - 03/02/2011

Sky with airplanes and their crisscrossing contrails © EU

EU plans will allow international air passenger data to be used under strict conditions in the fight against terrorism and serious crime.

The personal data that airlines collect from passengers can provide law enforcement agencies with invaluable information in the fight against terrorism and other serious crimes.

Improving security

As part of its strategy to improve security in Europe, the EU is proposing common rules for transferring, using, storing and protecting data collected from passengers on international flights to and from an EU country.

Most EU countries already collect and use passenger data for law enforcement in some way, but only a few do so systematically. A unified approach would close security gaps, better protect personal data, and ensure airlines and passengers know what rules apply.

Airlines would be required to send the information to a special law enforcement unit in the EU country of departure or arrival. Such units could use the data only for tracking and prosecuting terrorists, and those involved in other serious crimes, like drug smugglers and human traffickers. Law enforcement officials would also be able to use the data when coordinating their investigations with other countries.

While protecting personal information

The passenger name records held in airlines' electronic reservation systems contain information like travel dates, itineraries, contact details, credit card numbers, seat numbers and baggage information.

The proposed rules spell out what data could be transferred and processed. Passengers would have the right to access, correct and delete their data. They would also have the right to compensation and to take legal action if the rules are violated.

Law enforcement units would be able to keep the data for a limited period only - after one month, the individual's name would be stripped to make it anonymous. After five years, the information itself would be deleted. An independent data protection authority would monitor compliance.

Next steps

It will probably take around two years for new rules to be agreed on by the Council and Parliament, and put into effect. Once that has happened, rules covering flights within the EU will be considered.

More on EU security and justice

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