Data Protection: come fly with me (but only if…)
Oh dear, the necessity to combat terrorism is leading to renewed hostilities between the European Commission and the US Government (the office of the Homeland Security Secretary), over data on airline passengers, writes John MacGowan of Bloor Research.
Since March 2003, Washington has ordered airlines flying in to the USA to provide data on their passengers, including names, itinerary and dietary preferences. The US has refused to place limits on the use of such data as a means of combating terrorism.
In response, the European Commission considers that these demands could breach EU data protection laws and has sought assurances that the data provided will not be subject to abuses (constantly analysed to determine the travel patterns of individuals), stored indefinitely and will not result in further demands for additional 'sensitive' data related to religion or health problems.
The failure of the US to provide binding commitments that personal data obtained from airline passengers could not be abused and therefore violate EU laws on confidentiality has led to these 'data' demands being rejected.
The resultant impasse could lead to the European data protection agencies fining airlines who supply passenger information to the US authorities, which may then be abused. Conversely, EU airlines can validly complain that they risk fines from the US authorities for non-compliance.
One airline (Finnair) has announced it will hand over information, to the US authorities, on all passengers travelling to overseas destinations - including credit card numbers and the choice of meal. Finnair maintains that by asking the customer's consent to pass on this information, no privacy laws will be broken; nevertheless granting permission is a condition required in order to purchase a ticket.
Common sense must prevail. The airline industry is having difficult times in just surviving; planes being refused landing permission (and therefore flights being cancelled) because they have refused to divulge details of any EU citizens on board would be disastrous and lead to financial ruin - look at the effect an unofficial strike at Heathrow (of just a few hours) had on British Airways.
On a related subject, the Dutch Data Protection Agency has ordered telecoms companies to provide the option of "abbreviated" itemised telephone bills to its customers to prevent their associates, call habits and 'lifestyle' activities being determined by unauthorised parties.