Concern over new flight data deal

3 Mar 2003

Various Irish organisations have condemned a deal agreed between the European Commission and US customs officials to share passenger information on transatlantic flights.

From Wednesday, US law enforcement agencies will be able to tap into airline computer systems and check who is flying into and out of the US.

This means that if you are planning to fly to the US in the near future, the US authorities will know information about you before you arrive. They will know your credit card details, your date of birth, your address and perhaps your religion. If this includes requesting a special diet because you are Muslim, they will know that too.

Under the agreement, airlines such as Aer Lingus, will be obliged to supply US officials with each passenger’s name, itinerary, contact phone number and credit card details at least 15 minutes before each flight leaves Europe for the US. The list of names will be checked against a US anti-terrorist database before each flight lands in the US.

The new agreement, which comes into force this Wednesday, is a transitional system and a permanent arrangement will have to be approved by EU governments and the European Parliament.

Commission officials say that, in absence of a deal, Washington would have imposed new visa requirements on EU citizens travelling to the US.

A spokesperson for the European Commission says the arrangement satisfied US legal requirement, while respecting European Data Protection laws.

But the Irish Council for Civil Liberties disagrees. According to Aisling Reedy, director of the council: “We are very seriously concerned by this development because of the huge implications on the right to privacy and the deal that has been struck seems to have come with no safeguards. There are no clear safeguards about how long this information will be kept for and what exactly it will be used for and who would have access to it. And only last week a 70-year-old man was released in South Africa after being arrested by the FBI for mistaken identity. The dangers of abusing information when it is not accompanied by safeguards is very clear by that practical example,” she adds.

At this stage, it is unclear how the agreement will be implemented or whether each member state’s data commissioner will monitor the agreement. According to Ireland’s deputy data protection commissioner, Tom Maguire, monitoring and implementation of this agreement “are issues that have yet to be clarified and finalised”.

Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, Ireland’s national airline carrier to the US, is in discussions with officials in the European Commission, but it is still waiting on a full briefing and instructions on the new agreement. It was unable to comment any further at this stage. According to Maguire, “if Aer Lingus does not provide this information, it will not be able to fly into the US”.

The Air Transport Users Council of the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland reacted with unease at the overall thrust of the policy. Chairman Tadhg Kearney says: “One suspects it is disproportionate. The EU has not asked for any reciprocal information from the US and one wonders will they be asking for such details from passengers on internal flights within the US.”

By Lisa Deeney