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On Tuesday, June 8, the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice and its Future of DHS Project, and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative hosted a virtual event on the future of transatlantic security and the clash over Passenger Name Record (PNR) data.
The event featured a discussion with:
- Kenneth Propp, Europe Center Nonresident Senior Fellow and author of an upcoming Atlantic Council report on this issue;
- Ambassador Nathan Sales, former State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator and Nonresident Senior Fellow for the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs; and
- Dr. Frances Burwell, Europe Center Distinguished Fellow and Senior Director at McLarty Associates.
Thomas Warrick, Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice and the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs and Director of Forward Defense’s Future of DHS Project, moderated the discussion.
What is PNR?
Mr. Warrick opened the discussion and introduced PNR—personal information collected by airlines of passengers including names, ages, credit card numbers, and even dietary restrictions. He highlighted how the United States and the European Union shared PNR records over the last decade, but growing privacy concerns in Europe threaten to disrupt PNR data sharing, as other bilateral agreements with the EU have come under scrutiny for data protection reasons.
Why is PNR data important?
Ambassador Sales stressed the importance of PNR data in counter-terrorism efforts. He noted attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic have shifted on PNR, beginning with the US development of more refined systems to screen passengers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, followed by the EU decision in 2016 to mandate its member states to develop PNR systems, and culminating in the UN Security Council Resolution 2396 that mandated all member states to develop and employ systems to record and track PNR data.
What is the privacy debate?
Mr. Propp contextualized the current PNR debate within the larger transatlantic discussion on how to reconcile the differences between US and European Union policies on sharing personal data. Pointing to the Court of Justice of the European Union’s ruling which annulled the EU-Canada PNR agreement, he highlighted the threat of the EU-US agreement’s incompatibility with the ruling, and stressed the consequences of differing views of PNR storage and usage on both sides of the Atlantic. He emphasized the need for US-EU cooperation on this issue in order to avoid placing the burden on the commercial airline sector to manage conflicting sets of regulations.
Dr. Burwell emphasized the need for transatlantic cooperation on this issue as part of a larger strategy to develop a unified digital policy for democracies. Dr. Burwell expressed her desire that next week’s US-EU summit will serve as an important first step towards developing comprehensive transatlantic digital policy.
All three panelists reiterated the complexity of developing a future US-EU PNR agreement–both in terms of coming to an agreement and in bringing attention to this issue given the number of high-profile issues that are currently on the agenda. They also stressed the need to contextualize discussions of PNR data policy within larger discussions on balancing national security interests with individuals’ right to privacy.