Berlin calls for EU-wide retention of PNR flight data

German Internal Affairs Minister Thomas de Maizière. May 2014 [NEXT Berlin/Flickr]

German Internal Affairs Minister Thomas de Maizière. May 2014. [NEXT Berlin/Flickr]

The German government is calling for EU-wide retention of flight passenger data to combat the risk of terror caused by returning Jihadists, sparking opposition in the European Parliament against what critics call a “pointless hasty decision”. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Concerns over suspected terrorists returning from the Middle East, have driven politicians to draw up preventive measures.

In Berlin, German Internal Affairs Minister Thomas de Maizière has put a highly debated legislative proposal on Europe’s political radar.

The conservative politician is calling for EU-wide retention of flight passenger data without need of justification.

“Tracking travel movements is a tool that can be used to combat this threat to domestic security,” the Ministry explained in answer to a question from the Bundestag’s Left Party faction.

“Returning Jihadists are threatening the EU’s domestic security. Urgent action is needed to combat this,” the Ministry continued.

Identifying travel patterns of terror suspects

By collecting passenger data – so-called PNR data – the German government hopes to determine travel patterns of terror suspects and draw conclusions concerning their stays in training camps or conflict areas.

Information on other passengers from the same flight can also provide useful information regarding relevant or so far unknown persons, the Ministry wrotes in its response.

But implementing EU-wide PNR data retention could be a difficult task. Though the EU has concluded agreements with the United States and Australia in the past, de Maizière’s proposal sparked a heated discussion in the European Parliament over legal data protection concerns.

The recommendation is not without precedent. The European Commission already submitted a similar legislative proposal in 2011. The measure requires that all personal records collected on travellers through booking and handling systems be transmitted to border control authorities in the receiving country.

According to the Commission, 60 different categories of data should be collected, including contact information, travel routes, computer IP-addresses, hotel bookings, credit card information and diet preferences.

For the five largest EU member states, the PNR system would cost around €25 million and records are supposed to be stored for five years. But a spokesman from the Internal Affairs Ministry said on Wednesday (29 October) that the German government intends to “actively” push for a reduction of this retention period.

In a conclusion from the EU Summit at the end of August, the 28 heads of state and government declared their commitment to a rapid initiation of European PNR retention. Individual “assignments” pertaining to the agreement are expected to be finalised by the end of this year.

Germany’s Internal Affairs Ministry expressed its support of the schedule. But, at the same time, said it was currently assessing whether “legal data protection improvements” are needed, in light of the decision issued by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on data retention.

According to the ECJ, the  EU Data Retention Directive is a violation of the basic fundamental rights. The directive, allowing surveillance of all citizens without justification, was annulled in April of this year. In its decision, the Court said the measure should be restricted to situations of absolute necessity.

European Parliament concerned over data protection

Speaking to EURACTIV Germany, Social Democrati MEP Birgit Sippel called the Internal Affairs Minister’s plans a “hasty decision that will not do anything”.

The PNR system is an “exorbitantly expensive instrument,” she said, and “nothing else than a knee-jerk reaction after the terror attack in Canada”. All this money could be better spent on prevention and integrating people who radicalise for various reasons, Sippel argued.

The Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs is expected to deliberate over the European Commission’s proposal on EU PNR data in November. But Sippel said she considered it impossible to reach a decision before the end of the year.

“First, we need legal security, particularly in light of the ECJ ruling on data retention, which takes into account the fundamental right to privacy,” the MEP explained.

“Massive EU-wide retention of flight passenger data creates an illusion of security that it does not even provide. And to do this, personal rights of European citizens are compromised. We should not let ourselves be forced to give up our democratic values,” Sippel contended.

Warning against “limitless data retention”

Andrej Hunko, the Left Party’s internal affairs spokesman, also criticised the German government’s proposal, saying it would allow “digging around in mountains of data” and open the door to “limitless data retention of air travellers”.

Hunko explained that checking the entry and exit of islamist fighters is already doable with the existing systems. Every European border control agency already receives Advance Passenger Information (API) from airlines regarding incoming flights, he pointed out.

But in de Maizière’s words, the security situation is serious, in light of a growing threat from radical Islamists.

“The number of people who pose a threat is higher than it ever was,” said the conservative politician. Germany could see an event similar to what happened in Canada, he continued. “We stand for freedom, making us a target of hate,” the Minister explained.

Security forces currently estimate that the threat of such isolated terrorists, who radicalise over the Internet, is currently higher than the risk of attacks planned over a longer period of time by extremist groups.

The chief of Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Agency (BKA), Jörg Ziercke, said investigators are currently monitoring 225 threatening persons, meaning extremists who authorities believe are likely to launch an attack. Just a few years ago this number was around 80 or 90, he indicated.

There is still no way for Germany to get a security guarantee, de Maizière said, (as) no one can ensure that a terror attack does not take place in Germany. But scaremongering is also the wrong approach, he pointed out, because it plays into the hands of extremists.

“We are concerned but not fearful,” the Minister said. “We are acting, but we cannot issue a guarantee that all attacks on Germany will be prevented.”

'Passenger Name Records' (PNR) refers to information provided by passengers and collected by air carriers in order to process reservations and check in passengers.

Such data has been used for almost 60 years by customs and law enforcement authorities around the world.

However, recent technological developments have allowed advanced electronic transmission of the data.

This makes PNR an even more useful tool to fight serious crime, including terrorism.

According to the German proposal, the agreement would be used exclusively to fight terrorism and serious transnational crime, and would be limited to what is necessary for that purpose.

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