LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - An agreement between the European Union and Canada to share airline passenger data that they say is key to fighting terrorism drew tough scrutiny at an EU court hearing on Tuesday because of privacy concerns.
The dispute over the retention and sharing of passenger name records (PNR) has become a shibboleth in Brussels for the debate over balancing people’s privacy with the need to protect against terrorism.
The agreement with Canada foresees the retention and sharing with Canadian authorities of airline passenger data by carriers operating flights between the EU and Canada.
The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) heard arguments for and against the agreement at a six-hour proceeding.
“We ... know that these crimes do not respect borders,” said D. Fennelly, a lawyer for Ireland. “The European Union cannot and should not act in splendid isolation.”
Islamist militant attacks in Paris last year and last month’s attacks in Brussels have stoked calls for law enforcement agencies to have easier access to people’s data.
Ireland, France, Britain, Spain and Estonia, who intervened in the case, emphasized that PNR do not allow investigators to paint a detailed picture of someone’s private life.
But the European Parliament and privacy advocates cast doubt on that assertion.
PNR includes name, travel dates, itinerary, ticket and contact details, travel agent and other details.
“Practically all of the PNR data transferred by air carriers is systematically analyzed in order to make assumptions about who is or who is not a dangerous traveler,” said Anna Buchta, agent for the European Data Protection Supervisor.
The governments’ lawyers said it was impossible for investigators to know beforehand which PNR data could prove useful.
“If an agreement such as the envisaged agreement, which respects fundamental rights, is unable to be concluded, it will have a major impact on the conclusion of other agreements with other countries, including the European PNR,” said Dominique Maidani, a lawyer for the European Commission, referring to a stalled proposal to share passenger data among EU security services.
But the lead judge on the case, Thomas von Danwitz, seemed unconvinced about the privacy safeguards in the agreement.
“No one tells me that these data are transferred to Canada and no one tells me why they are transferred to Canada,” von Danwitz said.
A nonbinding opinion from an adviser to the court is expected in June, with a final ruling to follow after the summer.
Editing by Matthew Lewis