US Customs to have direct access to EU airlines reservations databases

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The full details of the deal agreed by the European Commission and US Customs officials over demands for access to personal information on passengers flying to the USA goes much, much further than first thought.

1. US Customs will have direct access the reservation databases of airlines based in the EU from 5 March 2003.

This is quite different to the original US demand under its "Manifest Requirements Under Section 231 of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Act of 2002". This said that airlines flying to the USA must supply a list and personal information on passengers 15 minutes after the flight has taken off - "PNR" (Passenger Name Record) with personal details and accommodation addresses in USA and any other information categories the Attorney General of the USA decides to add in the future.

There is no mention in the Joint Statement issued by the European Commission and US Customs on 17/18 February of access to passenger information being access after a flight has taken off. In effect US Customs and other agencies will be able to place under surveillance all booked passengers details well prior to the flight taking off.

2. The agreement says that US Customs can pass on downloaded PNR data to any other US law enforcement agency to prevent and combat "terrorism and other serious criminal offences".

There will thus be no limit on how many other agencies in the USA, at federal or state level, will get access to the information nor on whether additional suspicions/data can be added to the PNR before or after circulation to other agencies inside or outside the USA.

Although the European Commission laid great emphasis on: "its full solidarity with the US objective of preventing and combating terrorism" the surveillance of airline passengers is clearly not limited to this purpose.

3. Incorrect data will only be changed at the "discretion" of US Customs.

The European Commission says it accepts "the good faith of US customs" to respect the principles of the EC Data Protection Directive - but the USA has no data protection law and is not subject to EU law even though it will be "accessing PNR data in the territory of the Community". It is clearly stated in the Annex to the Statement that PNR data subjects will have no right to correct wrong information - they can complain but any amendment is at the "discretion" of US Customs.

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"Anyone who believes that US Customs, which is now part of the Home Security Department, will limit itself solely to downloading information on passengers booked to fly to the USA is very naive. Any passenger who uses an EU airport in transit, from a country outside the EU, will be checked back to their country of origin and so will any other passenger flying anywhere who is of interest to US intelligence agencies"

US Customs will have access to passenger details in advance and will be running the names through all the available intelligence databases, so there is every likelihood they will try to stop "suspected" individuals from boarding the plane"

1. Full-text: European Commission/US Customs talks on PNR transmission, Brussels, 17/18 February: Joint Statement (html)

Full background in Statewatch's reports:

2. European Commission caves in to US demands for airline passenger lists

3. US Customs to have direct access to EU airline reservation databases

4. EU Working Party on data protection findings on proposal

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