U.S. seeks more data on plane passengers

Authorities would tap reservation services

August 22, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --U.S. and European authorities, looking for more tools to detect terrorist plots, want to expand the screening of international airline passengers by digging deep into a vast repository of airline itineraries, personal information and payment data.

A proposal by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would allow the U.S. government to not only look for known terrorists on watch lists, but also to broadly search through the passenger itinerary data to identify people who might be linked to terrorists, he said in a recent interview.

Similarly, European leaders are considering seeking access to this same database, which contains not only names and addresses of travelers, but often their credit card information, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers and related hotel or car reservations.

"It forms part of an arsenal of tools which should be at least at the disposal of law enforcement authorities," Friso Roscam Abbing, a spokesman for Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission and the European commissioner responsible for justice and security, said yesterday.

The proposals, prompted by the recent British bomb plot allegations, have inspired a new round of protests from civil libertarians and privacy experts, who had objected to earlier efforts to plumb these repositories for clues.

"This is a confirmation of our warnings that once you let the camel's nose under the tent it takes 10 minutes for them to want to start expanding these programs in all different directions," said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The United States has rules in place, and European nations will have rules by this fall, allowing them to obtain basic passenger information commonly found in a passport, such as name, nationality and date of birth.

U.S. officials are pressing to get this information, from a database called the Advance Passenger Information System, transmitted to them even before a plane takes off for the United States.

But a second, more comprehensive database, the Passenger Name Record, is created by global travel reservation services such as Sabre, Galileo and Amadeus, companies that handle reservations for most airlines as well as for Internet sites like Travelocity.

Each time someone makes a reservation, a file is created, including the name of the person who reserved the flight and any others traveling in the party. The electronic file often also contains details on rental cars or hotels, credit card information relating to travel, contact information for the passenger and next of kin, and at times even personal preferences, such as a request for a king-sized bed in a hotel.

European authorities currently have no system in place to routinely gain access to this Passenger Name Record data. Frattini, his spokesman said, intends to propose that governments across Europe establish policies that allow them to tap into this data so they can quickly check the background of individuals boarding flights to Europe.

U.S. authorities, under an agreement reached with European authorities in 2004, are already allowed to pull most of this information from the reservation company databases for flights to the United States to help look for people on watch lists.

Members of the European Parliament successfully challenged the legality of this agreement, resulting in a ruling in May by Europe's highest court prohibiting the use of the data after Sept. 30.

Chertoff said that in addition to simply re-instating the existing agreement, he would like to see it eventually revised so U.S. law enforcement officials had greater ability to search the data for links to terrorists.

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