Officials Seek Broader Access to Airline Data
By ERIC LIPTON
Published: August 22, 2006
WASHINGTON, Aug. 21 — United States 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
United States government not only to look for known terrorists on watch
lists, but also to search broadly through the passenger itinerary data to
identify people who may be linked to terrorists, he said in a recent
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 Monday.
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 those repositories for
“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 already has rules in place, and European states will have
rules by this fall, allowing them to obtain basic passenger information
commonly found in a passport, like name, nationality and date of birth.
American 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 known as the Passenger Name Record
is created by global travel reservation services like 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, like a
request for a king-size bed in a hotel.
European authorities currently have no system in place to routinely gain
access to this Passenger Name Record data. Mr. 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.
“It is not going to solve all our problems,” Mr. Abbing said. “It is not
going to stop terrorism. But you need a very comprehensive policy.”
American 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, unless the accord is
renegotiated. European and American officials expect to reach a new
agreement by the end of September.
But Mr. Chertoff said that in addition to simply reinstating the existing
agreement, he would like to see it eventually revised so American law
enforcement officials had greater ability to search the data for links to
Under the current agreement, for example, the United States government can
maintain Passenger Name Record data on European flights for three and a half
years. But it is limited in its ability to give the data to law enforcement
agencies to conduct computerized searches. Those searches could include
comparing the passenger data to addresses, telephone numbers or credit card
records on file for known or suspected terrorists, Mr. Chertoff said.
“Ideally, I would like to know, did Mohamed Atta get his ticket paid on the
same credit card,” Mr. Chertoff said, citing the lead hijacker of the 2001
plots. “That would be a huge thing. And I really would like to know that in
advance, because that would allow us to identify an unknown terrorist.”
Paul Rosenzweig, a senior policy adviser at the Homeland Security
department, said the use of the passenger data would be negotiated with
“We are handcuffed in what we can do with it now,” he said. “It would be a
big step forward if we could identify ways in which we can use this
information to enhance our ability to detect and prevent terrorism while at
the same time remaining respectful and responsive to European concerns
But the proposals to expand access to this data will be likely to spur
Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the European
Parliament, said that given the previous opposition to the American use of
the passenger record data, he expects the plan by Mr. Frattini will draw
“I think that is unlikely to fly,” he said in an interview on Monday.
The problem, Mr. Watson said, is not a lack of information, but the
unwillingness of individual European states to share with other countries
data on possible terrorists so that it can be effectively used to block
their movement internationally.
Mr. Stanley of the civil liberties union said that if Mr. Chertoff and Mr.
Frattini continued in the direction they are headed, the government would
soon be maintaining and routinely searching giant databases loaded with
personal information on tens of millions of law-abiding Americans and
But Stephen A. Luckey, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot and aviation
security consultant, said those efforts were an essential ingredient in a
robust aviation security system.
“Even with the best technology in the world, we will never be able to
separate the individual from the tools he needs to attack us,” said Mr.
Luckey, who helped airlines in the United States develop a screening system
for domestic passengers. “You are not going to find them all. You have to
look for the person with hostile intent.”