04/19/2012 04:28 pm ET

New Air Passenger Data Deal Approved By Europeans

WASHINGTON -- Two years after the formal expiration of a controversial Bush-era pact requiring air passenger data be handed over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a deeply divided European Parliament approved a new agreement Thursday with tighter protections but just as many concerns over privacy.

In a vote of 409 in favor, 226 opposed and 33 abstentions, the European Union's governing body approved the Passenger Name Record agreement with the United States. Many who voted against the PNR pact contend that the new rules, like the ones they replace, violate civil liberties and privacy protections.

The latest agreement replaces a 2007 pact, which was reworked by Obama administration officials and their European counterparts to address lingering concerns about privacy and data protection more than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Once the agreement goes into effect next week, it will stay in force for seven years.

The agreement applies to the 22 million Americans, Europeans and others who cross the Atlantic annually and account for more than $72 billion in trade a year. All passengers are required to provide information about themselves when they book their flights. The air carriers share that PNR data -- which includes such sensitive information as credit card numbers and requests for meals with religious restrictions -- with government officials looking for transnational criminals and would-be terrorists.

Under the new rules, the Department of Homeland Security will keep the information in an active database for up to five years, although it will be "depersonalized" by removing passenger names after six months. For another five years, the information can still be maintained but under stricter access rules.

The original PNR agreement was adopted after a plot to blow up transatlantic airliners using liquid bombs was foiled in 2006.

Congress, in responding to the 9/11 attacks, mandated that air carriers provide PNR data on every flight coming into the U.S. The records have 19 data points, including itinerary, date of birth, payment method, contact information, seat assignment and traveling companions. The Department of Homeland Security runs the records through terrorist watch lists and other databases to help identify known threats early and spot others who adopt suspicious behaviors.

Officials say PNR data has aided many high-profile terrorism investigations, including those involving David Headley, who pleaded guilty to planning the Mumbai terrorist attack; Faisal Shazad, the would-be Times Square bomber; and Najibullah Zazi, who admitted to a plot to bomb New York City subways. PNRs also have been used in nearly every human-smuggling case involving air travel.

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, said in a statement that the new agreement "demonstrates how the United States and the European Union continue to take vital steps to fight terrorism and transnational threats, while protecting privacy and civil rights. Addressing the shared security threats we face requires strong international partnerships, and this agreement is a testament to the long tradition of European and American cooperation."

Cecilia Malmström, the European Union's home affairs commissioner, also welcomed the agreement, which applies to 27 EU countries as well as the United States. She called it "a substantial improvement" on the 2007 version and said that "it provides stronger protection of EU citizens' right to privacy and more legal certainty for air carriers." Malmström added, "At the same time, it fully meets the security needs of the United States of America and the EU."

But many in Europe view the deal as an unwelcome continuation of President George W. Bush's policies. They link the air travel security measures with the Iraq war and the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay, which remains open despite President Barack Obama's promise to close it.

Birti Sippel, a German member of the European Parliament, said the agreement "places all citizens under general suspicion and hands them over to the justice system of the United States, instead of defending our values."

Details of the new agreement can be found here.