Personal information on European passengers who fly to the US is to be given to authorities in Washington in a move which has infuriated civil liberties groups.
Under a deal agreed yesterday, the European Union gave way to American demands for access to almost all data known by airlines about passengers, including their home addresses, birth dates, credit card numbers and even special dietary requirements.
The US has no general law on data protection, raising particular concerns about the use of passengers' details. But faced with the prospect of a ban on flights, many European airlines have been providing the data since March in what the European Commission admitted was a contravention of EU law.
Concessions from the US mean that data will be kept for a maximum of three and a half years and used for anti-terrorism investigations but not general police work. The agreement says that the most sensitive items of information, including data that could indicate religious or political beliefs or medical conditions, will not be storedafter examination.
Once EU governments have legislation in place they will be entitled to reciprocal arrangements, the European Commission said yesterday. American demands for data in airline reservation systems came in the wake of 11 September. A law enacted two months after the attacks required carriers to grant access to data electronically, ahead of arrival.
Jonathan Todd, a spokesman for the EU Commissioner for the internal market, Frits Bolkestein, said that he would have preferred the US to have "access in fewer data fields" but that the outcome was, on balance, "satisfactory". He added: "Every country has the right to exercise some control over who visits their territory".
But Tony Bunyan, editor of the Statewatch civil liberties magazine, said: "When it comes to big business, like the recent row over steel tariffs, the EU goes into bat. When it comes to citizens' rights, the EU falls at the first hurdle. The Commission has completely ignored its duty to uphold EU law." He said the Commission's decision marked a step towards the "global imposition of the surveillance of travel".
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