European commissioner blunders into passenger data debate with little warning


The debate on how governments can use data about airline passengers continues to rage in Europe. At the end of November, the European Parliament signaled its interest in protecting the privacy of passengers by referring the EU-Canada PNR agreement to the European Court of Justice. It appeared that this would quiet debate on the issue for the time being. But last week Dimitris Avramopoulos, the current European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs, and Citizenship, reignited the conversation by meeting with the Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs committee of the European Parliament to discuss, among other things, the EU directive on the use of passenger data.

Proposed in 2011 by former EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, this directive would oblige air carriers operating flights between the EU and third countries (meaning outside of Europe) to transfer passenger data to national authorities in the member state of departure or arrival, specifically through established Passenger Information Units (PIU). Passenger data, also known as Passenger Name Records or “PNR” for short, contains information provided by passengers and collected by air carriers, and is considered useful for the “prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of terrorist offences or serious transnational crime.” But these records contain sensitive personal data and are shared with governments outside EU borders. The EU has concluded similar agreements with the U.S. and Australia in the past.

“A different scheme than the PNR”

The European Parliament recently voted in favour of a resolution to refer the EU-Canada agreement on PNR to the Court of Justice to deliver an opinion of its compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights. After this vote, members of the European Parliament and digital rights activists expected the legislative debate on the EU PNR directive to be postponed until the CJEU’s assessment was released. Unfortunately, Commissioner Avramopoulos decided not to wait for the opinion and signaled his desire to quickly reach an agreement on the 2011 directive. To the surprise of many Parliamentarians at the hearing, the Home Affairs Commissioner said the landmark CJEU ruling on data retention was “a different scheme than the PNR.”

This confusing position by the Home Affairs Commissioner was not well received by the Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs committee. Members from the Liberal, Socialist, and the Nordic Green Left groups immediately expressed their concerns about Avramopoulos’ push to quickly reach an agreement because of privacy implications. These members suggested that Avramopoulos should instead concentrate his efforts on establishing a new data protection framework rather than pushing for the 2011 EU PNR directive to be finalised. After Avramopolous’ unwelcome move, member states of the EU had the opportunity to further discuss the 2011 directive during a Justice and Home Affairs meeting within the Council of the EU. The Council, in a similar vein to Commissioner Avramopoulos’ sentiments, called on the European Parliament to “adopt as soon as possible its position” to allow the negotiations with Member States on the EU PNR Directive to quickly begin.

For more comprehensive information on this issue, please check out our overview of Passenger Name Record agreements here.


Contribution by Francesco Vinci