- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The European Union yesterday agreed to give personal information on arriving airline passengers to U.S. law enforcement agencies after the United States made concessions on privacy issues.

The database for profiling potential terrorists is a key component of the Bush administration’s war on terror.

It also is a model for similar agreements the United States is negotiating with other countries.

“The EU cannot refuse its ally in the fight against terrorism … but a balance had to be found,” said EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, who worked out final details of the agreement with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

The agreement still must be ratified by Congress and the European Parliament.

Information from 34 “data fields” would be collected by airlines and transmitted first to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, then to other law enforcement agencies if they request it.

The information on passengers includes their names, home addresses, telephone numbers, credit cards, e-mail addresses, number of bags they are carrying, point of origin and number of people with whom they travel. The list is being kept secret.

The United States will keep the information for 3 years, a concession from seven years.

European negotiators won an agreement that ethnic group, religion, medical histories and other private information be excluded. They said disclosing it would violate European Union privacy laws.

“I think we’ve come up with a very solid middle ground,” said Stewart Verdery, the Homeland Security Department’s assistant secretary for policy.

He said the data, which would be transferred over the Internet, would speed up processing passengers through Customs.

“We don’t want all of that burden to be handled at the port of entry,” Mr. Verdery said. “We want the information before the wheels roll up.”

Airline officials described the data collection and transfer as a minor inconvenience.

“U.S. airlines never had a beef with the passenger-data requirements,” said Doug Wills, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for U.S. airlines. “That’s just a cost of doing business in the post 9/11 world.”

The agreement resolves a dispute that started shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Federal Aviation Administration required all airlines to provide passenger data within 15 minutes of departure and threatened fines of up to $6,000 per passenger and loss of landing rights for noncompliance.

The rules caused protests in the 15-nation European Union, which said the information violated its privacy laws. The original information was drawn from about 50 “data fields” and included everything from credit-card use to meal preferences.

The agreement yesterday restricts data sharing to fighting terrorism and other “serious crimes of a transnational nature,” Mr. Bolkestein said. “Domestic crime has now been excluded.”

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