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EU will give flight details to US

The U.S. wil keep hold of the EU data for three-and-a-half years.
The U.S. wil keep hold of the EU data for three-and-a-half years.

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BRUSSELS, Belgium (Reuters) -- The European Union and the United States have clinched a deal on how to share data of passengers traveling across the Atlantic to help with the global fight against terrorism, EU and U.S. officials said.

The European Commission said it was ready to hand over data about airline passengers with the United States after Washington offered "adequate" privacy safeguards.

The decision ends months of tense talks as the European Union had reacted angrily to initial U.S. demands, saying they would breach the privacy rights of its citizens.

"There was pain on both sides, but we have come up with a very solid middle ground," said Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary for border and transportation policy in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd said the European Union executive would soon adopt a decision to allow the transfer of data to the United States under the agreed framework.

The decision by the Commission is subject to an opinion from the European Parliament. The EU assembly had earlier said the U.S. request was against EU privacy rules and asked the EU executive to find a solution by year-end.

"I think that today marks a real dawning of an era...of mutual recognition and mutual respect for data protection and privacy framework on both sides of the Atlantic," said Nuala O'Connor Kelly, chief privacy officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. has demanded access to foreign airlines' booking records in a bid to gather useful information to prevent acts such as the September 11, 2001 air attacks.

Airlines failing to comply to the request faced a fine or the potential loss of landing rights in the United States.

This had pressured carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and others to start sharing passengers' data to U.S. despite risking being sued by passengers for breach of EU laws.

U.S. offered concessions

Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein, the EU official who negotiated with the United States, said talks were not easy, but that in the end the United States had offered a number of concessions

"It has taken protracted discussions at both officials' and political level. But the U.S. leadership were finally persuaded of the need for flexibility," Bolkestein said in a speech to the EU Parliament's Citizens' Freedom and Legal Affairs committees.

"In the end, the United States has made a number of important concessions," he said in Strasbourg, France.

U.S. officials said both sides had given much ground.

"Many thought that our security needs could not coexist with the European Commission privacy laws but we have managed to thread the needle on this arrangement," said Verdery.

Bolkestein said the United States had agreed to bring down the number of personal data that may be subject to 34 from 39 and had agreed to delete all sensitive data, such as information about a passenger's health, race or religion.

He said that the United States had also agreed to limit to three-and-a-half years the storage time of the data, down from an initial request for 50 years.

After three-and-a-half years Brussels and Washington would jointly review the system and readdress it if necessary.

In addition, the United States agreed to use the data only for the fight of terrorism and related crimes and not for ordinary crimes as initially requested.

The United States also offered a mechanism where people could complain if they had a concern about the collection or use of their data.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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