EU just two votes away from scooping up air passenger data

While the two votes might be formalities, it will be two more years before the Passenger Name Record Directive takes effect

A system for tracking European air passengers is just two votes -- and two years -- away from implementation, after national governments agreed Friday to a text proposed by the European Parliament.

But even if the text is ratified promptly, EU rules mean it won't take effect for another two years.

There's no plan to create a single, central database about passengers flying into and out of the European Union. Rather, each member state will set up its own passenger information unit to gather data from airlines using its airports. Airlines will have to hand over data about those on flights entering or leaving the EU, and countries may choose to collect data on intra-EU flights too.

The goal of the legislation, the Passenger Name Record (PNR) Directive, is to detect, prevent and investigate terrorist offenses and serious crime. EU legislators have become more impatient to reach a deal following the recent attacks in Paris, although none of those behind the attacks flew to the city.

The compromise reached Friday between national ministers and the parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) sets out the ways in which the data can be used, such as for determining the risk presented by passengers before their arrival, and the length of time it can be stored.

Records of passengers' names, travel dates, itineraries, ticket information, contact details, booking agents, means of payment, seat numbers and baggage information will be stored for six months, after which the names of the passenger and any others travelling on the same reservation will be masked out, with the remaining data stored for another four-and-a-half years.

Police already use such information in their investigations, but procedures differ from country to country. Legislators want to harmonize those rules across Europe.

LIBE committee member and author of the compromise text, Timothy Kirkhope, said he preferred to see a single system that included privacy protection, rather than the existing patchwork of rules. "The choice is not between an EU PNR system and no EU PNR system, it is between an EU PNR system and 28 national PNR systems that will have vastly differing, or absent, standards for protecting passenger data," he said Friday.

The committee will vote to formally accept the compromise text he proposed on Dec. 10, and then submit it to Parliament for a final vote early next year.

But the rules won't take effect overnight: EU directives are not laws in themselves, but instructions to the national government to pass their own laws having the same effect. They have two years to do so.

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