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Alarm at US right to highly personal data

London Observer | July 22, 2007
Jamie Doward

Highly sensitive information about the religious beliefs, political opinions and even the sex life of Britons travelling to the United States is to be made available to US authorities when the European Commission agrees to a new system of checking passengers.

The EC is in the final stages of agreeing a new Passenger Name Record system with the US which will allow American officials to access detailed biographical information about passengers entering international airports.

The information sharing system with the US Department of Homeland Security, which updates the previous three-year-old system, is designed to tackle terrorism but civil liberty groups warn it will have serious consequences for European passengers. And it has emerged that both the European parliament and the European data protection supervisor are alarmed at the plan.

In a strongly worded document drawn up in response to the plan that will affect the 4 million-plus Britons who travel to the US every year, the EU parliament said it 'notes with concern that sensitive data (ie personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, and data concerning the health or sex life of individuals) will be made available to the DHS and that these data may be used by the DHS in exceptional cases'.

Under the new agreement, which goes live at the end of this month, the US will be able to hold the records of European passengers for 15 years compared with the current three year limit. The EU parliament said it was concerned the data would lead to 'a significant risk of massive profiling and data mining, which is incompatible with basic European principles and is a practice still under discussion in the US congress.'

Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, has written to the EC expressing his 'grave concern' at the plan, which he describes as 'without legal precedent' and one that puts 'European data protection rights at risk'.

Hustinx warns: 'Data on EU citizens will be readily accessible to a broad range of US agencies and there is no limitation to what US authorities are allowed to do with the data.'

He expresses concern about 'the absence of a robust legal mechanism that enables EU citizens to challenge misuse of their personal information'.

Hustinx concludes: 'I have serious doubts whether the outcome of these negotiations will be fully compatible with European fundamental rights, which both the Council and the Commission have stated are non negotiable.'

The new agreement will see US authorities gain access to detailed passenger information, from credit card details to home addresses and even what sort of food may have been ordered before a flight. In addition, US authorities will be free to add other information they have obtained about a passenger, leading to concerns about how the information will be shared.

It has emerged that neither Hustinx nor the European parliament were aware of the final draft of the plan.

'If you are going to have this kind of agreement it should involve parliament and the data protection supervisor,' said Tony Bunyan of Statewatch, the civil liberties organisation that campaigns against excessive surveillance.

He warned that under the new system the data will be shared with numerous US agencies. 'The data protection supervisor and the European parliament are angry that they were not consulted,' Bunyan said. 'But they are also angry with a number of elements of the plan such as giving the US the absolute right to pass the data on to third parties.'

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, another group that campaigns against state surveillance, said the new agreement gave huge powers to the US authorities. 'We have no guarantee about how this data will be used,' Davies said.

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Office in England and Wales said it would be discussing the matter with European counterparts shortly. 'We are working with the European Data Protection Supervisor and our other EU data protection colleagues to come to a joint opinion on the level of data protection set out in the final agreement,' the spokeswoman said.

 

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