Sunday, January 28, 2007

EU, US Move Closer to Permanent Deal of Passenger Data

German interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble and US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff met in Berlin Friday. An extension of the passenger data exchange deal between the EU and the US seems likely.

During a visit to Berlin on Friday, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his host, German interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble, discussed the impact of a deal struck between the US and the European last year which gives American law enforcement agencies easier access to air passenger data.

The agreement applies only until July 2007 and a long-term accord will have to be hammered out soon. The two men also debated the need to harmonize data protection standards. European fears of insufficient US standard had been high in the run-up to the signing of the agreement on the delivery of passenger data by European airlines.

Schäuble said his talks with Chertoff centered on ways of intensifying the exchange of security-relevant data between Germany and the United States. He called that a top priority in the fight against organized crime and international terrorism.

Schäuble and Chertoff were agreed that present-day threats made it necessary to focus even more on crime prevention. The US Homeland security chief had just come from the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, where he also talked about the security dangers of the 21st century.

US chief praises efforts so far

Chertoff spoke about the potential ability of even a single individual or small group to use technology with the sort of destruction that would have been unthinkable a century ago. He said in Berlin that "you can’t put that genie back in the bottle once a nuclear bomb or another weapon of mass destruction gets into the hands of a terrorist."

Chertoff praised the usefulness of the data deal between the United States and the European Union struck in October of last year. It allows US security agencies to get hold of and analyze data of European air passengers headed for the US.

Airlines have to make available passengers’ addresses, telephone numbers, credit card details, e-mails and other information to help identify suspicious travelers at the earliest possible stage. Information that may point to passengers’ religious denominations must not be passed on in line with European data protection and anti-discrimination standards.

Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, has the responsibility to extend the current deal past July of this year and turn that the agreement into a longer-term accord, Schäuble said.

Schäuble predicts greater security

"Of course, the European Union has in interest in reaching a long-term agreement," he said. "The Americans hope that such an accord can be coupled with an even more efficient use of the data made available. This is something that we can live with. We do not need more data input, but a more efficient analysis of what’s available already. Citizens should have no objections to that, because everyone should have an interest in enjoying greater security during passenger flights."

Both Germany and the United States agree that data protection standards must not be sacrificed in the fight against cross-border terrorism. There are however different views on just how strict relevant regulations should be.

A German-US working group is to look into ways of harmonizing national data protection laws.

Hardy Graupner (nda)

Deutsche Welle 01/2007