May accused of betraying 'database state' promise

Tracking movement: PNR contains address and credit card details
Tracking movement: PNR contains address and credit card details

By Ian Dunt

Theresa May is poised to back an expansion of the database containing details of European air passengers, despite promises to roll back the 'database state'.

The home secretary wants passenger data, including bank information and details of travelling companions, to be held for six years rather than the 30 days proposed by the EU.

She is also demanding that the proposed system includes details of passengers on flights within Europe, rather than just into and out of the continent.


"The government is determined to balance liberty with national security," immigration minister Damian Green insisted.

"Collecting information about a passenger's air travel is a vital tool in the fight against international terrorism and organised crime."

But the move enraged privacy and civil liberty campaigners, who were promised that the government would act to roll back the 'database state' when it entered Downing Street.

"It seems that the Home Office won the election," a spokesperson for Privacy International told politics.co.uk

European home and justice secretaries are meeting on Monday to discuss passenger name records (PNR) retention.

Seventeen other European states are thought to back Ms May's desire for a more robust system but figures in the European parliament and the German government are wary of the move.

Writing to the Hungarian EU presidency and fellow interior ministers last month, Ms May made clear that she would lead the campaign for a more expansive system.

"It's deeply regrettable that the home secretary wishes to adopt such an invasive and illiberal policy," Big Brother Watch director Daniel Hamilton told politics.co.uk.

"The state has no reason - and no right - to track people's movements in this way, let alone to log their credit card details and the identities of their travel companions.

"A government elected on a promise to scale back the database state should be an opponent of this type of policy, not its biggest cheerleader."

Any expansion of the system would essentially replicate the level of data required of passengers flying from Europe to the US.

Airlines collect 19 pieces of information on trans-Atlantic trips, including home address, credit card details and mobile phone numbers. They then pass them on to authorities.

The EU proposal would see passenger details only collected upon entry or exit from Europe, not on internal flights. Italian proposals would go even further than the UK and apply the rules to non-airline travel, including ferries.

EU plans would anonymise passenger details after 30 days and then archive them for five years. Ms May's proposals would retain the information for three years before archiving them for a further three.

Ms May is also understood to be lobbying for the use of the data to be expanded, so that it can be used for immigration purposes as well as terrorism and security.

"It's absolutely crazy. This proposal will never pass through the parliament," German Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht was quoted as saying by the website EUobserver.com.

"A huge amount of data on EU citizens will be retained daily, without having any concrete investigations, leaving room for random profiling and data mining.

"This is far beyond the commission's proposals and if the Council of ministers agrees to this, it won't be in line with what several constitutional courts and the European Court of Human Rights have said."

The British effort comes despite an outspoken attack on the PNR system by the European Data Protection Supervisor, an independent body tasked with protecting privacy in the EU.

The body concluded that large-scale collection of PNR data "in a systematic and indiscriminate way. raises specific concerns".

The watchdog also raised issues with the evidence which had been gathered to support the data retention, saying: "There is not enough relevant and accurate background documentation which demonstrates the necessity of the instrument".

The findings of the supervisor did nothing to prevent the Committee of the House of Lords from backing Ms May's move on the back of material from the Home Office.

An investigation by the website Amberhawk suggested the material related to Home Office oral evidence to the committee dating back to 2008.

Home Office officials told politics.co.uk they would not comment on the details of the proposals but confirmed the UK was still considering whether to back the directive.

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