By Grey Fisher —
As any American who has traveled since 9/11 knows, when you arrive at the airport, you check much of your privacy at the curb. Car stops, luggage searches, and security check points with X-ray scanners all demonstrate that, in the timeless battle between security and liberty, security trumps at the airport. While there is no shortage of grumbling in long security lines, most Americans are more than willing to sacrifice significant privacy in order to fly safely.
What many Americans may not know is that foreigners entering the United States are also asked to make considerable privacy sacrifices for our national security. As part of President Obama’s effort to combat terrorism using less controversial tactics, his administration depends significantly on travel and reservation data to stop suspicious travelers at the border. Currently, European Union (E.U.) officials provide the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with data on airline passengers, including passenger names, addresses, credit card information, frequent flier numbers, telephone and e-mail contacts, and histories of flight no-shows. This data has been critical in avoiding terrorist attacks: thanks to DHS’s access to passenger information, Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, was removed from his flight; and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the intended Christmas Day bomber aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, was prescreened for special questioning once he arrived at the border.
Despite the tremendous value of passenger data in avoiding terrorist attacks, some European proponents of privacy have criticized the practice of passenger data-sharing for years. Now, there is serious danger that that criticism will be given legal effect, since the Lisbon Treaty gives the European Parliament control over passenger data-sharing agreements. Parliament is seriously concerned with privacy sacrifices under the current passenger data-sharing agreement; due to these concerns, the E.U. executive has demanded a renegotiation of the agreement. Negotiations will take place in the next several weeks, and Parliament must approve any resulting agreement. Approval seems unlikely without meaningful changes regarding European passengers’ privacy rights.
Given the tremendous value of passenger data for our national security, the Obama administration would be wise to make meaningful compromises that still fall short of giving up access. Providing non-American citizens a legal means to challenge what the United States does with, and concludes from, shared airline data is one possible way for the United States to address Parliamentary concerns while still maintaining a right to use passenger information (Americans already have this right under the 1974 Privacy Act). In addition, giving access to passenger data only to counterterrorism agencies might allay some concerns that the United States is collecting data for reasons beyond national security. The coming weeks will be critical to the administration’s counterterrorism efforts. Hopefully, Europe and the United States will reach a compromise that balances the protection of civil liberties with the need for reasonable privacy sacrifices essential to avoiding devastating terrorist attacks.
Image courtesy of ANP/AFP