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Europe, in Wake of Attacks, Votes to Collect Air Passenger Data

After a wave of terrorist attacks in recent months, European Union lawmakers took a decisive step on Thursday in favor of bolstering security with the approval of a continentwide system to collect and share information on airline passengers.

The new measures are the latest sign that efforts in Europe to improve safety are trumping concerns over protecting privacy and civil liberties, as the region grapples with the fallout from several high-profile assaults on major cities. They follow a similar pattern to the changes seen in the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, was the culmination of five years of arguments about whether the latest measures threaten personal privacy. To take effect, the law requires the final approval of a majority of the European Union's member governments, but that is expected to be a formality when interior ministers meet in Luxembourg on April 21.

"Europe today is demonstrating its ability to mobilize to ensure the safety of European citizens," Manuel Valls, the prime minister of France and a leading supporter of the law, said in a statement on Thursday.

The new measure requires a majority of the 28-nation bloc's governments to start sharing data within the next two years, mainly on passengers traveling in and out of the European Union. Many of the region's governments are already setting up such systems.

Lawmakers who were against the system said it was too intrusive, reflecting skepticism in European countries with authoritarian histories about the surveillance of ordinary citizens and the strong legal status that the region has given to protecting individuals' privacy. But lawmakers nevertheless approved the system with 461 votes in favor, 179 against and nine abstentions.

The concerns about privacy were overshadowed by outbreaks of deadly jihadist violence, starting with the attack in central Paris early last year on a French satirical weekly newspaper. That was followed by serious security breaches that contributed to assaults on Brussels last month in which more than 30 people died, after attacks in and around Paris in November that left 130 dead.

One of the attackers who blew himself up at Brussels Airport had been deported by Turkey to the Netherlands. Turkey had alerted Belgian officials that the man, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, was a "foreign terrorist fighter."

The initiative has strong backing from Britain, which already records air passenger data, and France, with Mr. Valls traveling to the European Parliament before the vote to urge lawmakers to cast their ballots in favor of the measures.

Asked why France had not yet set up such a system nationally, Mr. Valls indicated on Wednesday that the installation of one was in its final stages, but he also suggested that only a pan-European system could have helped identify would-be attackers before the violence in Paris and Brussels.

Mr. Valls said after the vote that Europe needed to ensure that everyone — including citizens of European Union countries who travel in and out of the Schengen area, which allows free movement across much of the bloc — was "checked systematically" at its borders.

The measure also has the backing of the United States, which wants its allies in Europe to do more to help detect the movements of militants and criminals.

The data collection involves mainly names, travel dates, itineraries and payment details that must be kept for five years.

Not much will change for passengers flying to the United States because air carriers on those routes must already provide passenger data to the Department of Homeland Security. The European Union also has similar agreements with Australia and Canada.

But the measure will make it mandatory for all airlines to provide information about passengers traveling to and from the European Union to national authorities in Europe. So-called Passenger Information Units in each European country could then share the information with one another, on a case-by-case basis.

Denmark plans to collect data on air passengers, but it will not be able to exchange that data systematically with other countries under the new system because Danes voted in a referendum in 1992 not to participate in European Union initiatives in the fields of justice and home affairs.

Concerns about privacy limited the scope of the rules over flights between European Union countries. In those cases, governments will have a choice about whether to collect and share information. But after the Paris attacks, justice and interior ministers pledged in December to collect and share data on flights inside Europe on a voluntary basis.

Shortly after the vote on Thursday, a leading critic of the measure issued a blistering response, saying the system would undermine the rights of citizens of European Union countries and would divert resources from fighting terrorism effectively. "Instead of mass data collection, there should be targeted surveillance of suspects for flights involving a defined list of risk destinations," Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German member of the European Parliament and a prominent member of its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, said in a statement.

Timothy Kirkhope, a British member of the European Parliament who led the negotiations for lawmakers, acknowledged in a statement on Thursday that there were "understandable concerns about the collection and storage" of people's data. But he said there were adequate safeguards in the legislation, which "is proportionate to the risks we face."

National authorities are explicitly prohibited from "processing" personal data revealing a person's race or ethnic origin, political opinions, religion or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, health, and sexual life or sexual orientation, according to the law. In cases where the authorities receive such information, "they shall be deleted immediately," it states.

[Source: By James Kanter, The New York Times, Brussels, 14Apr16]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
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