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EU unveils air passenger 'risk profiling' plan

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The European Union is set to emulate the US by adopting the wholesale screening and profiling of air passengers. In a proposed Framework Decision being put forward today, the European Commission calls for the collection of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data for all flights into and out of the EU, together with a "risk assessment" system that will effectively profile all passengers.

The move confirms predictions that Europe's long term answer to the US PNR system is to match it, and to keep step with the US terror-tracking system as it evolves. The US Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) system, like the proposed EU one, will screen passengers for risk and produce watchlists, sharing the data and the results between EU states.

The EU PNR system will produce risk assessments for international travellers - these will provide the basis for decisions on fly/no-fly, arrest, detain for questioning and so on. A draft proposal does not call for the profiling of passengers on flights internal to the EU, but EU Commissioner Franco Frattini has previously floated that possibility, and it is likely that this will be included, either prior to implementation of the Framework Decision or in a future escalation.

The move will also make it possible for travellers to be assessed individually and given a risk/threat score. How the scheme is operated, however, will vary from country to country because it is envisaged that the system be "decentralised", on the slightly weird basis, as Statewatch points out, that there would be "a high risk of failure because of the vast amounts of data". The EU's centralised Visa Information System is designed to handle 100 million records. But on the other hand the VIS project is proving to be a serious tech headache.

The decentralised approach for PNR will mean that it's the individual states that collect and analyse the data, producing a "risk assessment for each passenger" in accordance with their national laws. This data will then be available for a string of "competent authorities", who will be nominated by individual countries. It will therefore be the case that an authority nominated by, one government will have an automatic right to PNR analyses produced by all of the other governments. What the governments then do with this data is not entirely clear, but no doubt the US would be keen to take delivery of it, and no doubt the EU will be equally keen to co-operate.

Clearly the passenger profiles and threat lists will be inconsistent and will be available to divergent lists of authorities. But one might speculate that the advantage for the Commission here is that it doesn't have to restrict the level of profiling in countries that are further ahead in the surveillance stakes. A centralised system would need to have standards that accommodated the most squeamish and liberal of EU states (but who are they, these days?), and would also be likely to trigger another fit of EU red-lining from Gordon Brown. As the UK is in the very front rank of profiling, surveillance and general terror hysteria, it would be a pity to lose them. From that point of view, anyway.

The justification for the system, such as it is, is that the Commission has been able to assess the value of PNR data from the experience of the US - where out of 63 million visitors the DHS detected a whole 1,200 criminals and immigration violators. It is also thought that one person was detained in connection with terrorism, but it's not known what crime, if any, might have been involved, and what happened.

As the proposal is being put forward as a Framework Decision, the European Parliament need only be consulted, has no say in the final outcome, and therefore can and will be ignored. More information and background links at Statewatch, which as always, comes with The Register's highest recommendations. ®

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