The curious tale of the French prime minister, PNR and peculiar patterns

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Some politicians keep advocating for profiling of plane passengers, even through there's no evidence it works. [Pexels]

There is no evidence that profiling airplane passengers helps security, but some politicians keep insisting the opposite, write Estelle Massé and Joe McNamee.

Estelle Massé is senior policy analyst at Access Now and Joe McNamee is executive director of European Digital Rights. Access Now and European Digital Rights are both NGOs.

Two weeks ago, Paolo Mengozzi, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union, indicated that the EU cannot ratify the draft EU-Canada Passenger Name Records (PNR) agreement because several of its provisions do not respect the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Representatives of civil society, including our organisations European Digital Rights and Access Now, have been fighting PNR agreements in Europe for years. We have pointed out that when the government indiscriminately collects and stores personal information, it opens the door to privacy violations and personal harms including data theft, data misuse or abuse, and government profiling.

The EU Passenger Name Record directive, adopted last year, requires EU countries to create massive national databases of personal information about everyone who travels into, out of, and possibly even across Europe. It’s a hugely costly endeavour, yet lawmakers have so far failed to demonstrate its necessity or proportionality. No evidence has been shown that it will prevent terrorism or stop crime.

The advocate general’s opinion is a wake-up call for lawmakers who care about safeguarding citizens’ fundamental rights, especially given the fact that the EU-Canada PNR agreement is considered the least restrictive of the various PNR schemes now in place. So why have some EU lawmakers been so keen on these agreements? A clue: perhaps the evidence is not what matters to them.

France has been particularly insistent on the unsubstantiated benefit of profiling all travellers — indiscriminately and in the absence of suspicion. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve pushed for swift adoption of the EU PNR directive before the EU Council, going so far as to accuse the European Parliament of being “irresponsible for delaying the vote” — implying that democratic debate over a privacy-invasive measure is simply wasting time. Prime Minister Valls also pushed for the directive, allegedly arguing for adoption as a strong symbolic gesture in the fight against terrorism.

Court Advisor: EU-Canada air passenger deal illegal

An EU-Canada deal to share air passenger data in a bid to fight terrorism cannot be passed in its present form as it would breach privacy laws, the chief legal advisor to the European Union’s top court said Thursday (8 September).

This blind faith in the value of passenger profiling — despite the lack of evidence for its efficacy in preventing crime or terrorism — argues for deeper reflection. So, we followed the advice of Timothy Kirkhope, the MEP in charge of the EU PNR file, who once explained that PNR was not about profiling, it was just about “patterns in data.”

We began “looking for patterns” to explain what has been happening and we found one. It turns out that Valls is a cheerleader both for the PNR directive and for a company called Safran, which sells PNR surveillance technology.

Safran has a major base in Evry, the small town south of Paris where Valls was mayor from 2001-2012. The company employs more than 3,300 people and, earlier this year, Valls visited the site and discussed Safran’s role in ensuring long-term employment in the region. The French government said in a statement following the visit, “We have one aim: that the French industry stays ahead.”

The company now appears to be in fine fettle. It won major contracts to put in place expensive PNR systems in France and Estonia. Now that the PNR directive will make such systems mandatory across the EU, it is also seeking contracts in several other EU countries.

That’s not the end of the story. The pattern of links between Valls and Safran run even deeper. According to the French news outlet Marianne, in 2012, when a Safran contract was not renewed, Valls, who was then interior minister, allegedly intervened to help the company. He appears to have done so despite the fact that the proposed change to the contract could have saved €30 million of public funds.

Bertrand Marechaux, the police chief who questioned the contract, kept fighting to modify it and initiating legal proceedings against Mopho, a subsidiary of Safran. He was ultimately removed from his position. Valls’ office didn’t respond to Marianne’s request for comment at the time.

We think this compelling pattern should spur the public to start asking questions. Was Prime Minister Valls truly eager for the symbolic adoption of the EU PNR or did he want his old constituency to benefit? Hard to know. More of the pattern for Valls’ behaviour could surface following MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld’s question to the Commission regarding the lobbying communications of companies that have won bids for building PNR systems in EU member states.

One thing is for sure: citizens should not pay the price, either in the form of public funds or fundamental rights infringements, to assist the surveillance industry in general, or Safran in particular. We welcome the advocate general’s opinion regarding the EU-Canada PNR agreement, and we hope this presages invalidation of EU agreements that do not protect our fundamental rights, failing the test of necessity or proportionality that would justify them.

MEPs refuse to vote on PNR before Council strengthens data protection

The ideological battle over the proposed system of recording air passenger information raged on this Monday (7 March), as MEPs refused to vote on the bill. EURACTIV France reports.