U.S. to give personal data to G8 nations

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor   |   June 9, 2004 at 7:42 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- The United States will begin handing personal data about U.S. air travelers to the security services of foreign countries next year, including Russia, under a new global aviation-security plan agreed to Wednesday at the G8 summit in Sea Island, Ga.

Among the initiatives in the plan is "data exchange on visa watch lists and advanced passenger information," a senior administration official who requested anonymity told reporters.

Advanced passenger information is data about travelers that is available before check-in through the computerized records of airline booking systems.

The official did not say exactly what data about U.S. citizens might be made available to G8 partner nations but said it would be more data than is currently exchanged with the European Union.

"The information exchange that we are talking about developing here will go beyond the arrangements that we've made bilaterally with the European Union," the official said.

The controversial data-exchange deal with the EU, which has been in place for more than a year but was only finally formalized June 1, covers 34 data fields on the so-called PNR or passenger name record, including name, address, phone details and credit-card numbers.

But data covered by the new plan will likely include some kind of unique identifier, such as a passport number, date of birth or Social Security number.

A second official explained that the aviation-security alert during the end-of-year holiday season, which caused the cancellation or delay of international flights to the United States, had highlighted the weaknesses of the existing data exchange.

"What you find is, you have multiple hits against very common names because there's insufficient identifiers," said the official, apparently referring to the embarrassing case of an Air France flight delayed for several hours because of concerns about a passenger thought to be on a terrorist watch list who turned out to be a young child.

The failures over the holidays demonstrated "the need for very specific points of data on individual passengers," concluded the official, without elaborating on what they might be.

Privacy advocates said that the deal was tantamount to "policy laundering," imposing unpalatable and unconstitutional security measures through the back door of international agreements.

"We have said for some time now that the administration is engaged in policy laundering," said Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project, "bludgeoning our allies into accepting proposals that it would be politically difficult to implement in the United States. Once they're adopted, the administration can turn around and say, 'This is the international standard.'"

The first official said that the data exchange would not violate the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. "One of the things that we are committed to is moving forward with this air-security agenda in a way that respects privacy," they said.

But Steinhardt was dismissive. "They've already violated those principles (of privacy and personal-data protection). The deal with the EU was in bald violation of European privacy laws."

Although officials at the summit said they were "very comfortable" that the EU deal conformed with European law and with "international standards on privacy," the agreement -- reached with the unelected European Commission -- is to be challenged in court by the EU parliament later this month.

The second official could not completely rule out that the information handed over might include ethnic or racial data. "I can't say that I personally have gone and looked," the official said, "but I feel relatively confident that that is (not) the case. Those are not factors for screening."

At the moment, data will be exchanged only with other G8 countries -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia -- but officials said they were committed to "push(ing) back our borders by making sure that we are cooperating with all of the countries that send air passengers and, for that matter, sea freight to the United States," raising the prospect of citizens' data being exchanged with countries like China and Burma.

The official also hinted that the United States would also work on controversial data-mining techniques with its G8 partners. "We also intend to cooperate on identifying techniques for analysis of high-risk travelers," said the second official.

Other measures in the plan, which is due to be implemented over the next two years, include a 24-hour international center for aviation-security alerts like the one over the holidays, measures to reduce the threat of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, the development of internationally interoperable standards for encoding biometric data on passports and visas, and collaboration on best practices for physical screening of baggage and passengers.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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