"The EU cannot refuse its ally in the fight against terrorism … but a balance had to be found," said EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, who worked out final details of the agreement Monday with U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
Bolkestein presented the package Tuesday night to a European Parliament committee, which under EU law must be consulted but does not have a vote on the deal.
The agreement aims to resolve a dispute that has been simmering since Washington tightened airline security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, putting European airlines in a bind.
Washington required all airlines to provide passenger data within 15 minutes of departure and threatened fines of up to $6,000 a passenger and the loss of landing rights for noncompliance.
But the U.S. legislation caused protests in the 15-nation EU as the information requested, which covers everything from credit card data to meal preferences, and its distribution ran afoul of European privacy laws.
Under an interim deal hammered out in March, EU carriers are providing some information to U.S. customs about passengers on trans-Atlantic flights.
According to Bolkestein, the new deal resolves crucial details left open by setting "clear limits" on how much data is transmitted to U.S. Customs. In addition, there will be "no block sharing with other agencies," such as the FBI, he said.
The data will only be used in fighting terrorism and other "serious crimes of a transnational nature," he said, adding "domestic crime has now been excluded."
The data will be stored for only 3.5 years instead of the original 15, he said.
Ridge also agreed to set up a data protection privacy officer in the Homeland Security department, which will report to the U.S. Congress annually. While conceding the officer would not be independent, Bolkestein said the Commission would wait to see "how it works in practice."
By Constant Brand