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Privacy safeguards weak, EU says

Air passenger data accord criticized

BRUSSELS -- The United States, which is gathering personal data of millions of air travelers in a bid to fight terrorism, does not do enough to protect privacy rights of non-citizens, EU privacy watchdogs said yesterday.

Last month, the European Commission and the United States clinched a provisional accord for the transfer of air passengers' data to US authorities so that Washington can sift the information to fend off air attacks like those of Sept. 11, 2001.

Washington is also asking foreign airlines to allow armed guards on board, and several trans-Atlantic flights were canceled on Saturday after US warnings of Al Qaeda plots.

EU watchdogs said US privacy safeguards were inadequate in a draft statement made available to Reuters before publication today.

The data controllers are independent and were nominated after the EU passed a landmark data privacy law in 1995 seen as the world's strictest data protection system.

Watchdogs' chairman Stefano Rodota said that the EU law would be watered down if the European Commission bowed to US demands, and that global privacy standards would be lowered.

He said countries such as Australia and Canada have also asked the EU to pass on air passengers' data and would get a green light if they guaranteed enough privacy protection.

One major concern was the lack of a legally binding redress system. US citizens can go to court but the tentative EU-US deal rules it out for EU citizens, Rodota said. A data privacy ombudsman has been created in the United States but this does not meet EU standards for independence as it is attached to the Department of Homeland Security.

The right to rectify errors should be guaranteed and an independent redress mechanism set up, the watchdogs said.

The watchdogs said the list of passengers' personal data to be passed on to the United States was to be narrowed and its use limited to terrorism and related crimes.

The United States is asking airlines to give it access to their booking records so that it can collect up to 34 different types of data, including the passengers' address, phone and credit card numbers, travel companions, and itinerary.

The list was trimmed down from an initial US request of 39 items but watchdogs considered only 19 appropriate.

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