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EC cuts replacement deal with US on passenger data

Data kept for 15 years

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The European Commission and US security authorities have agreed a new deal on the handover of airline passenger information. Data will now be kept for 15 years, far longer than the three-and-a-half year limit in an earlier agreement.

Passenger Name Records (PNR) are transferred to US authorities by every commercial airline flying from Europe to the US under a deal struck between the commission and the US in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001.

Data protection officials have expressed concern about the deal because the US does not have as strict data protection measures as the European Union.

The first deal was ruled illegal on a technicality by the European Court of Justice and was opposed by the European Parliament. An interim deal runs out on 31 July and will be replaced by the just-approved agreement.

"The EU welcomes the new agreement which will help to prevent and combat terrorism and serious transnational crime, while ensuring an adequate level of protection of passengers' personal data in line with European standards on fundamental rights and privacy," said a statement from the European Union's Presidency, Council, and Commission.

The deal will last for seven years and actually reduces the amount of data transferred. It requires 19 pieces of data per passenger to be handed over as opposed to the 34 contained in the previous agreements.

Other parts of the deal could worry privacy activists, though. The data can be kept for seven years in an active database. It can then be kept for a further eight years in what the agreement calls "dormant, non-operational status".

The data can also be used for non-terrorism related offences as long as they take place on an international scale. "The data will be used only for the purpose of preventing and combating terrorism and related offences and other serious offences that are transnational in nature," said the EU statement.

The PNR data includes some information classified as sensitive, such as information that reveals the racial or ethnic origin, political or religious views, or health details of travellers. Though the deal says the US authorities must filter and delete this material, it also says it can be used in exceptional cases.

The EU parliament, which has opposed the transfer of PNR data, said that it had "concern" over the fact that "these data may be used by the DHS in exceptional cases".

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