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Air-passenger-data deal reached

Scott Tong Oct 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There is nothing especially personal. Or sensitive. But put together all the data airlines get on you every time you fly and it’s a pretty good profile. Washington has been pressuring European airlines to share that data so it can be run through terrorist watch lists. A European court threw out an agreement the two sides had. Privacy protections over there being stronger than they are here. So for the past week or so European airlines have been in a weird kind of legal limbo. Not sure if they’re required or even allowed to share. Today negotiators gave them an answer. Marketplace’s Scott Tong has more.

SCOTT TONG: The deal means European carriers will give Washington 34 pieces of passenger’s info within 15 minutes of liftoff. It’s similar to the old deal. Except now the Department of Homeland Security shares the data with other agencies to match it up against terror suspect lists.

Department spokesman Jarrod Agen:

JARROD AGEN: If someone’s using a cell phone that we have picked up in a terrorist safehouse, that data will allow us to see that and pinpoint someone who we wouldn’t have already had on one of our watch lists.

In return, the U.S. promises that every agency mining the data protects it. But Melissa Ngo of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says the more you share infor, the less-secure it gets. And Uncle Sam has an uneasy record protecting sensitive data.

MELISSA NGO: The Veterans Administration lost a computer, and an external hard drive. This affected 26.5 million veterans as well as active duty troops.

And yesterday, the Commerce Department reported that Chinese hackers had penetrated its computer system. For all the privacy questions, the airlines are celebrating.

Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia says they’d been in limbo ever since the old deal got thrown out. If carriers provided passenger data, they were open to privacy lawsuits in Europe. If they didn’t, they risked being cut off from American airports — that was Washington’s threat.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: If you’re a European international carrier, you cannot afford to be denied landing rights in North America, that’s simply not an option.

Still, the carriers haven’t hit cruising altitude just yet. This is an interim deal. Permanent talks start next year.

In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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