EU lawyer says passenger data transfer to US is illegal

The transfer of European airline passenger data to the U.S. is illegal, the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice has said.

Members of the European Parliament have welcomed the opinion by a top legal advisor to the European Union's highest court that the transfer of airline passenger data to U.S. authorities is illegal and should be stopped.

The leader of the Parliament's Liberal group said that the decision by the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice confirmed the Parliament's criticism of the measure that it "did not contain sufficient safeguards for data protection of E.U. citizens."

"I'm pleased by this preliminary ruling," said Graham Watson, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Advocate-general Philippe Leger said that the European Commission and the member states of the E.U. had been wrong to agree to hand over data to the U.S. authorities using legal instruments designed to ensure the free movement of goods within the Union's territory. The purpose of the measure was to fight terrorism and improve public security, but the Commission and the member states had not used the appropriate legal instruments, he said in his decision announced on Tuesday.

The opinion of the advocate-general is preliminary and does not have any legally binding effect on the court, which is expected to give its final verdict in spring next year.

In the majority of cases, the judge follows the opinion of the advocate-general, but in a number of recent high profile cases that has not been the case.

Watson said that he hoped the court would uphold the advocate-general's opinion.

However, the court failed to support objections of members of the Parliament that the transfer of data infringed the principle of the right to respect for private life, saying the objections were "unfounded."

Watson said that despite the fact that the advocate-general's opinion had not fully endorsed the Parliament's position, it had confirmed that the Commission did not have the right to release all passenger data to the U.S. authorities.

However, a spokesman for the U.K. government, which is currently chairing all E.U. meetings and speaks for its 25 members in international affairs, said there was no intention to change the policy on the transfer of data. He said no action would be taken before the court's final decision.

The 25 countries of the E.U. agreed in May 2004 to transfer to the U.S. data involving airline passengers, following a request from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. argued that the information is necessary to guarantee the safety of airline passengers in the wake of the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

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