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Sunday, Oct. 08, 2006 at 12:00 PM
English Police State to sleep with the U.S. Police State
Luxembourg (dpa) - European Union and United States negotiators on Friday clinched an interim deal allowing the transfer of key personal data on American-bound air passengers to US law enforcement agencies.
The agreement, part of a transatlantic counter-terror drive, was hammered out after "very strong negotiations" - lasting for more than nine hours - between Brussels and Washington, EU justice affairs chief Franco Frattini told reporters.
"The results are positive for the EU," Frattini said, adding that the accord ensured privacy protection while stepping up the fight against global terrorism.
The draft pact, lasting until end-July 2007, will be followed up by further transatlantic negotiations on a permanent accord, Frattini underlined.
Passenger data to be transferred to the US Department of Homeland Security Department, and then accessible to other US agencies like the FBI, covers more than 34 pieces of information, including details of passengers' credit cards, passports and telephone numbers.
However, seeking to ease public and European Parliament concerns about privacy, Frattini insisted that under the new deal, data will be "pushed" to US authorities on specific request, rather than allowing the agency to "pull" the information from airline computers.
Also, the agreement states that the US Department of Homeland Security will only be able to "facilitate the disclosure" of data to other US agencies if certain key conditions are met.
Frattini said this meant that the Department would not provide unconditional direct electronic access to passenger data to US law enforcement agencies.
Also, the Homeland Security office would only disclose passenger data to other American law enforcement agencies if "they have comparable standards of data protection," he said.
Frattini added that the new accord had prevented the proliferation of confusing bilateral accords between the 25 EU states and Washington.
"It would have been a great risk for Europe, for security and for the privacy of European citizens," he said, adding: "We couldn't have kept the proper level of privacy protection."
The first tests of the so-called push system will be conducted before the end of the year, he said.
Agreement on a new deal on sharing passenger data was required after the EU Court of Justice in May annulled an earlier 2004 transatlantic deal on data exchange and gave Brussels until end-September to hammer out a new agreement.
The court's objections related to the legal basis of the pact, not its actual contents.
Clinching agreement on a new accord has not been easy, however.
Talks collapsed last week after EU negotiators rejected a request by US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for an automatic sharing of passenger data among US law enforcement agencies.
The US also wanted the right to directly access airline reservation systems.
Brussels was under pressure to strike an agreement because the court judgment made it illegal for airlines to transfer passenger data to the US after October 1.
Adding to the urgency, Washington warned that airlines which failed to share passenger data would face fines of up to 6,000 dollars per passenger and a possible loss of landing rights.
EU officials said the talks with US negotiators were also made more difficult because of differing transatlantic perceptions about privacy.
While sharing US concerns about terrorism, EU officials said they were determined to secure strict data protection guarantees in order to head off complaints by the European Parliament and the public.
The row came amid rising EU concerns about the US-led "war on terror" as spotlighted by a European Parliament inquiry into allegations that the CIA had used clandestine detention centres in Europe to interrogate terror suspects.
Such concerns have been exacerbated by reports of a secret agreement between the US Treasury and the Belgium-based money transfer company SWIFT, which has supplied US authorities with personal data for use in counter-terror inquiries.
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