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Last Updated: Friday, 28 February, 2003, 10:15 GMT
Flight details open to prying

Plans to give the US authorities access to airline databases go too far, argues technology consultant Bill Thompson.

Check-in desk
US agencies will be able to tap into airline computer systems

If you are planning to fly to the United States in the near future, then you might be interested to hear that the US authorities will know everything about you before you arrive.

Thanks to a new agreement between the European Commission and US Customs, reported at length by the campaigning group Statewatch, after 5 March US law enforcement agencies will be able to tap into airline computer systems and check who is flying into and out of the US.

This means they will know your credit card details, your date of birth, your address and, of course, any comments made about you by the airline which have been stored online.

If this includes requesting a special diet because you are Muslim, they will know that too.

The reason, as ever when our freedoms are trampled on in this way, is national security.

Worrying development

The US Government, not content with proposing to track its citizens on- and off-line, wants to know everything else about anyone it can.

The EU has shown itself totally unable to stand up to the United States on this important matter of principle

Then it can run its intrusive and almost certainly ineffective profiling and data-mining tools in the hope that it will spot terrorists.

The excuse this time is the 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Act, which also lets US Customs then pass information on to any other US law enforcement agency to prevent and combat terrorism and other serious criminal offences.

Whether or not the system will manage to achieve anything other than having innocent travellers dragged off planes or interned without trial because their names happen to match those of suspects - and the FBI's competence in this area is surely in doubt after the wrongful detention of Derek Bond - it is a worrying development.

In Europe we have, over many years and against strong resistance from commercial and even governmental interests, developed a culture of respect for the principles of data protection.

We acknowledge that individuals should be told what data is being collected, how it is being used and to what purposes it is being put.

We also require those who transfer data to ensure that the recipients adhere to these same principles, and insist that they inform people in advance of the places their data may be sent.

Backing down

Last year Microsoft was investigated because its Passport service was sending lots of data back to the US, where there are no national data protection laws and everything is left to self-regulation and market forces.

Luggage screening
Security has been stepped up airports

Yet the EU has shown itself totally unable to stand up to the United States on this important matter of principle.

When the Data Protection Directive was passed, instead of telling the US Government that it was no longer possible for US companies to collect data on European citizens or transfer such data from European offices to the US, the Commission backed down and agreed an inadequate "safe harbour" provision.

This means that US companies who promise to follow European principles can do what they want.

With this latest agreement, the fear that the US would attempt to block flights from Europe seems to have persuaded the commission to back down without even token resistance.

So although the US only asked for details of passengers within 15 minutes of a flight taking off, documents unearthed by Statewatch reveal that US authorities will be given complete access to the airline's databases to go fishing for whatever material they want.

Whatever the arguments for giving name and address details to US Customs, the current proposals go too far and must be withdrawn

Of course, they have agreed to adhere to EU data protection principles. But who can possibly believe that they will keep this promise when the national security argument is wheeled out?

One of the major problems with new technologies is that they have unexpected side-effects. Building massive databases saved airlines lots of money, enabled them to deal with more passengers and benefited all of us who use their services.

But it has also created a tool for surveillance, a tool that will now be turned against us.

When a website asks for your personal details so you can register, you always have the option of lying. But you cannot lie if you want to fly, and as a result all of your details are shortly going to be sitting on the FBI's computers, out of your control.

Whatever the arguments for giving name and address details to US Customs, the current proposals go too far and must be withdrawn.

It is up to national governments to tell the Commission that they have to think again.


Should the airlines pass on information to the US authorities? Is this necessary to fight terror? Send us your views:

I work most of the time abroad, mainly in Central America and Africa, so air travel and personal security are issues which I have to manage - 32 separate international flights last year. The US is at the forefront of the war on terrorism and I am happy for my details to be passed on, because I do not consider myself to be possessed of criminal or terrorist intentions. If the exchange of information also results in drug operations and money laundering schemes being busted, so much the better. We live in the post 9/11 world, all of us have to make sacrifices, however small.
Roger J, UK, currently on assignment in Guatemala

I agree with the US being be able to tap into airline computer systems and check who is flying into and out of the US. Why should not we know who is coming in and out of our country? It's just an extension of customs. It gives border agents one more tool to be more prepared in this new world of global terrorism. Anyway, wouldn't you want to know whose been coming in and out of your house?
Tom Reynolds, USA

Absolutely, the US should have the right to know who is entering the country. People do not have a right to enter this or any other country - it is a privilege. Bill Thompson's wrongheaded arguments indicate a total lack of appreciation for the danger presented to democratic nations by terrorism. Honest citizens have nothing to fear from an investigation of their backgrounds prior to visiting the USA and those who do object are free to visit Burundi or France if they so choose.
S G Frondorf, U.S.A

It depends on what kind of information will be passed to US authorities. Passengers should at least be informed of making a decision on whether to give permits of accessing their personal information by US. However, if someone is suspected to be involved with terrorism, with clear evidence found by the US or the local authorities, the US no doubt owns the right to know any details about him/her, in order to protect their country; otherwise, I can't see this measure could do any help in combating terrorism.
Jeng-Ji Huang, Taiwan

Yes, they should pass information to help prevent terrorists from flying into US cities. Imagine what it would be like to have London or Paris or Frankfurt suddenly robbed of its city center. Don't allow airlines to pass credit card information, if that bothers you.
Emil Wisekal, USA

Well, if you have nothing to hide then this is really a moot issue. We should only be scared if we do have something we do not wish anyone else to find out about us. Plus, what would the FBI or the US Customs want to do with your credit card number? Have a steaming cappuccino waiting on arrival?
Sukhbir Benipal, New York, USA

I am always puzzled why we assume that personal information is safer with a private firm than with a government. The great majority of nation states are guided by ethical principals, while all private firms must be guided by a profit motive. For whatever reason, we seldom hear of the transgressions of private firms but we always hear of the transgressions of states.
Jack Slattery, USA

I am a US citizen of Pakistani origin and has been living in the USA for the past over 22 years. On a recent flight to San Francisco, I was detained for one a a half hours search at the customs. I had my company files and various bank statements and financial proformas which were checked without my permission by five other persons who seemed FBI agents. I felt humiliated as my 4th amendment Bill Of Rights were trampled by this search without any due cause, reason or court order shown to me.

Just because my last name happens to be a common name in the Asian sub-subcontinent does not mean that I am involved in terrorist activities or have connections to extremist organisations. So, I totally agree with you that prying into passengers list as they fly to or from USA should be stopped as this constitutes serious violation of the basic rights of individuals as protected by the US Constitution 4th amendment.
Mak Khan, USA

All I can say is good for the US. What better way to track terrorists. Put the shoe on the other foot. Let's say I am going to the UK . If the UK wanted to know about me that is fine with me. I think people that complain might have something to hide.
Jan, USA

I'm amazed and quite concerned to learn about this new so-called "terror prevention" system. The US failed to uncover terrorist plots being planned and subsequently carried out with devastating consequences on their own soil. This is a very cynical use of post September 11 sympathy.
Andrew Sheridan, Luxembourg

I think this agreement is a disgrace, it's another blatant disregard for basic human rights under the pretence that it's in the interest of security. Nowhere near enough coverage has been attributed to this issue, although I doubt many people would be willing to oppose - how long before compulsory ID cards are issued?
Anthony Holdgate, England

In our country, we have the constitutional right to privacy, or do we? I have never broken the law, nor committed a crime, but say I had, and I was young and was punished, why then should anyone in our country past mistakes, or anyone who has never committed a crime be anyone else's business? Where is my constitutional right?
Mary, NY, USA

Yes, all airlines flying into the US should have to report all information to US authorities. Whether we want to admit it or not, the world did change after 9/11, especially for US citizens. If all of the terrorists came from Muslim countries, why should not US officials have the ability to look a little closer at Muslim visitors? They should be allowed to do this as long as it is done in a careful and consistent manner and not violate human rights.
Wayne Johnson, Australia

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.




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