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Flying to the US? Give US.gov all your personal data

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The European Commission has tamely agreed to airlines handing over personal details of all passengers flying to the US, in the name of 'homeland security.' These details could include all sorts of stuff the airline happens to have on record for you, including credit card numbers, phone numbers, special dietary requirements, and any other comments it has entered on the Passenger Name Record (PNR).

Naturally all of this other stuff filling the optional fields on the PNR is not what the US requires, but one could reasonably doubt whether a government currently hooked on mass profiling could possibly bring itself to throw it away. The primary objective of the system, which was implemented as part of the US Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Act of 2002, is for information on passengers flying to the US to be made available to the US authorities by 15 minutes after departure, and for information to be supplied for the return leg 15 minutes before.

So they can basically figure out who's on the plane, run checks on them, spot likely terrorists, have bags ready for illegals. Actually, if the system works as specified then it should mean you can just walk off the plane (unless you're a terrorist or an illegal) and straight onto the street, rather than joining an hour-long tailback at LAX immigration. We fear, however, that this will somehow not happen in real life.

There are problems with the Commission's decision not just because of what's happening to all the information the US doesn't require, but is going to get anyway, but also with what's happening to the information, full stop.

Europe theoretically has firm laws governing collection of personal data, and restrictions on the export of personal data to countries whose law does not match European standards. US law most certainly does not do this, but Europe's law has nevertheless been subverted by a series of US-EU fudges. What protection is there for the data covered by the latest agreement? The Commission feels that the US assurances are "sufficient."

If you look here, you'll see there's a requirement for law enforcement agencies to share information through an interoperable database and for a further ratchet - "change requirements for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) to specify that participating countries must incorporate biometrics that meet international standards in their passports by October 26, 2004." So next year the US will require biometrics too.

Granted, as you may have spotted from the URL, the context here is Chinese aliens, specifically students, but it's all part of the same big picture. The "electronic tracking system to be established by INS [Immigration and Naturalisation Service]" is actually the system using PNRs. But what about "provide for closer monitoring... establish... a transitional program that will track students and exchange visitors" until it's up and running? More, please, on the INS student-tracking system, dear readers. Does it wear raincoats?

At time of writing the lead newslink at the US Customs site was to an AP report taking a fairly positive line on the deal. It's "transitional," says the Commission, until there's permanent legislation agreed at the European end.

This however massively understates the nature of the row that preceded the deal. Without it, airlines not submitting the information would have been in breach of US law, while airlines submitting it would have been in breach of EU law. A somewhat less positive story in the Guardian says the US threatened to stop flights altogether. On the one hand just laughing would seem an adequate response to such a threat, but on the other, if neither side had climbed down, then it wouldn't actually have been possible for flights to take off. So the threat was there, and given that the US just did it and demanded compliance (as s so often the case) maybe that counts as threatening.

Anyway, US immigration starts getting your credit card details and any comments the airline might have on you (from kibbitzing at check-in terminal screens, we note these can be quite hurtful), and sharing it with whoever, as of March 5th. US citizens probably won't need to worry, as they probably have all of this stuff on you already. Non-EU and non-US citizens, probably ditto. Further details, plus the full US manifest requirements, are available at Statewatch. We're still waiting for the triumphant Commission press release. ®

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