U.S. wants new aviation standard to expand passenger data collection

The United States is pushing for a new global aviation standard by late 2019 that would expand the collection of passenger records from airlines, a high-ranking state department official said on Friday, in a move that would help combat terrorism while raising privacy concerns.

Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, urged the United Nations’ aviation agency in Montreal “to act with all deliberate speed” to come up with a new standard that would vastly expand the number of countries that collect passenger information like frequent flyer numbers, email addresses and credit card booking information.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) cannot impose rules on governments, but wields clout through its safety and security standards which are made mandatory through domestic legislation passed by its 192 member states.

The U.S.-led effort follows a 2017 U.N. Security Council Resolution that creates new obligations for countries to deter terrorist travel.

Meeting the 2019 U.S. deadline would be unusual for Montreal-based ICAO, which usually takes years to come up with new standards.

“Time is of the essence. Terrorists aren’t waiting, so we can’t afford to wait either,” he told reporters on the sidelines of ICAO’s high level conference on aviation security.

“We want other countries to have the same capabilities that we do.”

A minority of countries now collect PNR, and the sharing of travel data including names, travel dates, itineraries and contact details, has been debated fiercely over privacy concerns, especially in Europe.

Henrik Hololei, director general for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission, told Reuters in an interview that any ICAO standard would have to comply “with data protection rules in Europe.”

The United States has taken steps to protect privacy, like ensuring that government officers with access to PNR data do not abuse their authority, Sales said. “This is an issue that’s important to the United States.”

The United States has been using PNR since the early 1990s, and requires airlines to share data about bookings before departure. The information from passengers traveling to, from and over the United States is shared with different government agencies including the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Sales said PNR has been used successfully to break up child smuggling rings and stopped militants from entering the United States, he said.

Sales said the United States would be willing to help countries with monetary and technical assistance needed to collect passenger records.