Putting the PNR pieces in place: more EU funding for mass surveillance 30.3.16

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The EU Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive is still yet to be formally approved by the European Parliament, but that has not prevented the European Commission and Member States from setting up the infrastructure required for the mass surveillance of air travel. The latest contribution to this effort is a project led by the Hungarian interior ministry that will investigate ways to make sure that different national systems "are able to communicate with each other," thus facilitating the cross-border exchange of the personal data given by travellers to airlines.


Avoiding "PNR islands"

document sent by the Hungarian authorities (pdf) to the Council of the EU's Working Party on Data Protection and Information Exchange (DAPIX) on 10 March 2016 sets out the situation:

"On 4 December 2015 the Council approved a compromise text agreed with the European Parliament on the proposal for a directive on the use of PNR data for the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of terrorist offences and serious crime.

According to the directive, the exchange of PNR data is a significant issue and contains provisions regarding the exchange of such data between the Member States and between Member States and third countries.

In view of the above, it is very important not to build several isolated 'PNR islands' but to implement PNR systems which are able to communicate with each other.

In November 2014, the European Commission launched a call for proposal in the framework of the Internal Security Fund Police aiming at funding projects on the topic of law enforcement information exchange. In January 2015, the project partners submitted a project proposal aspiring to create the possibility of PNR data sharing between PIUs [Passenger Information Units, set up to process the PNR data gathered from airlines] by making use of existing law enforcement data exchange channels.

Following the positive evaluation of the proposal in July 2015, the European Commission and the Ministry of Interior of Hungary - as the coordinator of the project - signed the grant agreement in October 2015.

The official start day of the project was 1 January 2016." [1]

The project has three main aims:

  • examine the use of "existing law enforcement data exchange channels," such as SIRENE [the Schengen Information System's communication network], SIENA [operated by Europol] and FIU.net [a network for exchanging information on money laundering and terrorist financing], for the exchange of PNR data between PIUs;
  • to undertake an "integrated legal analysis on the national legislations governing the functioning of national PNR systems as well as the examination of the infrastructure and technical solution of existing law enforcement data exchange channels possibly used for PNR data exchange"; and
  • "to test the most appropriate channel(s)."

EU funding

90% of the project's funds (some €1.15 million) have been provided by the European Commission through the Internal Security Fund - Police (ISF-Police), with the remainder provided by the participating authorities and organisations:

  • Hungary: Ministry of Interior (project leader);
  • Bulgaria: State Agency for National Security;
  • Lithuania: Mykolo Romerio Universitetas;
  • Portugal: Polícia Judiciára;
  • Romania: General Inspectorate of Border Police;
  • Spain: Secretary of Security;
  • Europol.

However, as the Hungarian note to DAPIX states: "The project aims at the participation of all Member States. Therefore, invitations to the open meetings will be circulated in due time."

All of the Member States currently participating in the project had some or all of the costs for setting up their national PIUs paid for by the European Commission as part of a previous round of funding.

In 2013, €50 million was made available as part of the Prevention of and Fight Against Crime budget (ISEC, the predecessor to ISF-Police) to set up national PNR systems, in what appears to have been a process of establishing the infrastructure for a mass travel surveillance system before any EU legislation was in place. [2]

Hungary received over €5 million; Bulgaria almost €2.4 million; Lithuania €949,000; Portugal €976,000; Romania €134,137; and Spain almost €4 million. 14 Member States in total received ISEC funding to set up national Passenger Information Units.

Long term plans

The project as a whole is, according to the Hungarian note, based on a set of "principles for interoperability and data exchange between Member States' PIUs" that were agreed at a conference in the UK in October 2014:

  • "data exchange should be on a case-by-case basis (i.e. not bulk)";
  • "start small and exclude nothing for the future";
  • "use the existing legal frameworks to facilitate data exchange in the short-term";
  • "a secure network is required";
  • "a human element is always required: authorisation of the requestor and the proportionality of enquiries should be validated by human beings"; and
  • "the responding PIU is responsible for replying to an enquiry."

The October conference came after a secretive meeting in Milan in July 2014 at which Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK agreed on the need to interconnect already-existing or planned PNR systems based on national law, regardless of whether or not EU legislation was in place:

"Given the uncertainty about the timing for the finalisation of the negotiation of the EU PNR Directive, the participants in this group insist on the need to step up the cooperation between the relevant countries with regard to the use of PNR systems where they exist. The participants also stress the necessity of the interconnectivity of national PNR systems while we await completion of the negotiations on the EU PNR Directive. The NL/FR initiative on this interconnectivity is therefore an important instrument in ensuring cooperation between the relevant Member States in support of which the Commission has reserved funding that will be available sometime between this autumn and early 2015." [3]

Whether the Hungarian project on interconnectivity has taken the place of the Dutch-French initiative mentioned in the July 2014 document is unknown, but it appears to be serving the same purpose and is by now well underway: a "kick-off meeting" was held in Spain in February and the legal and technical analysis is being conducted between February and October this year. A six-month testing period will begin in December 2016 and the project is due to finish in June 2017.

Coming soon

For a variety of reasons, centre-left MEPs blocked a vote on the final adoption of the PNR Directive at the March plenary session of the European Parliament. The text was approved by the Parliament's civil liberties committee in December 2015. [4] Another attempt will be made to secure a vote on the Directive at the EP's April plenary session.

Whether or not the text is approved then or at some later date, the Hungarian-led project looks set to meet recent demands made by justice and interior ministers and EU officials for the implementation of an EU-wide PNR system "as a matter of urgency". [5] Once the system for the surveillance of air travel is in place, calls are likely to increase for its extension to other forms of mass transport such as rail and ferry.


[1] NOTE from: Hungarian delegation to: Working Party on Information Exchange and Data Protection (DAPIX), Passenger Name Record Data Exchange Pilot (PNRDEP) for Passenger Information Units - Proposal for the 5th IMS action list, 6857/16, LIMITE, 10 March 2016
[2] Travel surveillance: PNR by the back door, Statewatch News Online, 3 October 2014
[3] NOTE from: BE, DK, DE, ES, FR, NL, PL, UK delegations to: Delegations, Foreign fighters: Conclusions of the meeting of Ministers of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, held on 7 July 2014 in Milan, 12757/14, RESTREINT UE/EU RESTRICTED 4 September 2014
[4] European centre-left blocks the adoption of EU-PNR Directive, VoteWatch Europe, 14 March 2016
[5] Joint statement of EU Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs and representatives of EU institutions on the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March 2016 (pdf)

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