EU looks to collect air passenger data

The European Commission Tuesday proposed new rules allowing authorities easier access to the databases of Internet service providers to thwart terrorism.

In a bid to beef up counterterrorism, the European Commission Tuesday proposed rules allowing authorities easier access to the databases of Internet service providers, and a system of vetting air passengers entering and leaving the European Union.

The move comes days after a report by British intelligence service, MI5, warned that the threat of another attack by radical Islamist groups such as Al Qaida is growing. London's transport network was attacked by suicide bombers in 2005, causing 52 deaths. A year earlier 191 people died in a terrorist attack in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

Franco Frattini, the European commissioner for justice, freedom and security said more can be done at the E.U. level to prevent such carnage in the 27 country bloc. He wants to crack down on Web sites that spread extremist propaganda or share information about terrorist methods. At a press conference Tuesday he proposed making incitement to carry out a terrorist attack a criminal act.

"Terrorism remains a threat to the political foundations of the European Union as well as to the life and well-being of our citizens," he said.

The legislation he has proposed "will make it easier for law enforcement authorities to get cooperation from Internet service providers, to prevent crimes and identify criminals," Frattini said.

The move follows the passing of a controversial data retention law at the end of 2005 that forces all telecom companies to hold on to details about people's private phone calls, faxes and e-mail communications, in order to help investigators track terrorists. Under that law details about phone calls must be held for a minimum two years, while details about e-mails have to be retained for at least six months.

Frattini's plan to collect air passenger name records is almost identical to the system in the U.S., with which Europe agreed to cooperate at the beginning of this year. In February, the E.U. agreed to allow American authorities to demand 19 pieces of information about passengers flying from Europe to the U.S. -- including name, credit-card details and travel itinerary -- ahead of the departure of their flight. The information would be held for 15 years and can be accessed by any federal agency.

Frattini also wants airlines to hand over 19 pieces of data on all passengers travelling into or out of the E.U., 24 hours before departure. He proposes that the information be kept on file for 13 years.

The latest attempt to extend the powers of counterterrorism services has already sparked fierce resistance from lawmakers and civil-rights groups.

"The Commission's proposal raises serious doubts about the EU's respect for the freedom of expression," civil liberties group Statewatch said in a statement.

"We are weakening the position of the individual citizen vis-a-vis the authorities," E.U. lawmaker Sophia in 't Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament said, adding: "That is very worrying."

Frattini insisted that his ideas will respect citizens' rights. "Our goal remains preserving the right balance between the fundamental right to security of citizens, the right to life and the other fundamental rights of individuals, including privacy and procedural rights," he said.

The Commissioner's proposals must be on agreed unanimously by all 27 countries in the E.U. before becoming law.

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