EU lawmakers back blanket collection of airline passenger data

Stranded passengers are seen at Zaventem international airport near Brussels, Belgium, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files

By Julia Fioretti BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Airlines will have to transfer passenger data such as seat numbers and payment information to law enforcement authorities for flights into and out of the European Union, under rules passed on Wednesday by EU lawmakers. EU governments are anxious to prevent Europeans going to fight with Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, fearing they could carry out attacks in Europe when they return. They have long pushed for the sharing of airline passenger data. But members of the European Parliament have resisted for two years, on the grounds that would infringe people's privacy. The Islamist attacks on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January pushed the issue up on the agenda, and on Wednesday members of the Civil Liberties Committee in the European Parliament voted for an amended version of the so-called "Passenger Name Record" proposal. It will now be fine-tuned in negotiations with member states before becoming law. "The emerging threat posed by so-called 'foreign fighters' has made this system even more essential," said British Conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, who is spearheading the proposal. The system would make airlines operating flights into and out of the EU - but not within the EU - hand over passenger data such as seat numbers, contact details, itineraries and payment information, to EU law enforcement authorities, who will comb through them to identify patterns of suspicious behaviour. Lawmakers narrowed the types of crimes for which the data can be used to terrorism offences and some types of serious transnational crime, such as people trafficking and child abduction. The data would be "masked out" after 30 days to prevent the passenger being identified. It can then be held for up to five years for terrorism offences and four years for transnational crimes. Liberals and Greens in the Parliament still condemned the proposal, saying blanket collection of data would do nothing to stop terrorists from entering the EU. They had supported a targeted system of data collection which they say would have ensured a better balance between security and privacy, a debate that has heated up as Western governments have sought to counter the radicalisation on the Internet. (Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Larry King)