THE European Parliament (EP) has approved a controversial mass data collection plan for all passengers flying both in and out of the European Union, in the latest move designed to fight terrorism in the bloc.
Ministers voted 461 to 179 in favour at a meeting in Strasbourg on Thursday April 14, and will involve collection of Passenger Name Records (PNR), which include up to 19 pieces of data about each passenger, including names, email addresses, phone numbers, payment type, passport details, itinerary, and baggage.
Critics have said that PNR represents “a placebo at best”, claiming it will divert resources from targeted surveillance of criminal suspects.
Twenty-eight governments also agreed to monitor internal flights both within and between EU states, and this will be included in the final version of the proposal which is due to be signed off on April 21.
The European Parliament has been hesitant to agree to the proposals, which were first mooted in 2011, but has now relented in the face of continued pressure from governments following the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, said: “The atrocious terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have shown that once again Europe needs to elevate its common response to terrorism, and take concrete measures to combat it.”
The primary aims of the new measures are to identify terrorists who travel by plane before they take flights, and assist future security investigations.
Once the rules come into effect, airlines must provide passenger details to the relevant countries, which will then be stored for five years. After the first six months, the data will only be available by special request when there is a genuine suspicion of terrorist or other criminal activity.
European governments consider that the PNR system is a vital tool to combat terrorism and organised crime, since at least 5000 Europeans have already left for Iraq and Syria to join Jihadist movements.
The plans have been approved by the European People’s Party and the European Conservatives and Reformists, which includes the Tories plus other conservative and Eurosceptic groups.
Social democrats and liberals have been divided on the issue, while the green left and other minorities have voted against.
Belgian Green Party MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht said: “[It] will not only undermine the fundamental rights of EU citizens but also undermine the security of our societies by diverting badly needed resources from security and intelligence tools that could actually be useful for combating terrorism, like targeted surveillance.
“The tragic attacks on Brussels and Paris underlined that the problem is not the lack of information on terrorist suspects, as all suspects were already known to the authorities. Instead, it was the failure to properly share this information and act.”
In order to balance security against privacy, the EP also voted in favour of a separate law to improve data protection standards in the EU, to be introduced at the same time as the PNR system, since the current directive dates back to 1995.
The 28 states have two years to implement the new policies, although all have pledged to do so as soon as possible.
The UK is currently the only EU country with a fully operational PNR scheme, although France Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden are trialing similar systems.
The US, Canada and Australia also collect PNR information, and all three have signed deals to share information with the EU.