The European Parliament approved Thursday the creation of a new system to systematically store the data of airline passengers travelling to, from and within the European Union, after having blocked the measure for years over data privacy worries.
The creation of a European passenger name records (PNR) system gained momentum following last year's Paris terrorist attacks. The March 22 attacks in Brussels added further urgency.
The PNR system is seen as key to fight terrorism and serious crime, particularly when it comes to tracking so-called foreign fighters - Europeans who travel to Syria or Iraq and could then return home radicalized and ready to carry out attacks.
"PNR is not a silver bullet, but countries that have national PNR systems have shown time and again that it is highly effective," said EU lawmaker Timothy Kirkhope, who shepherded the file through parliament.
"The use of PNR data can sometimes be the only means for law enforcement authorities to identify previously unknown individuals who might be involved in criminal activity and pose a threat to our public safety," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans and EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said in a joint statement.
The new system will store passenger data such as names, credit card numbers, seat numbers and luggage information for five years, so that it can be used by law enforcement to track criminal patterns. The data will be rendered anonymous after six months.
The system was originally foreseen only for flights to and from the 28-country EU, but member states have promised to collect data also on intra-EU and charter flights.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve expressed hope that PNR will help European police and intelligence agencies regularly share information. Their reluctance to do so was identified as a flaw following this and last year's terrorist attacks.
EU member states still have to give their final blessing to the PNR project, but this is expected to be a formality. They will then have two years to set up the new system, but many are expected to implement it almost immediately.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that his country will begin testing its PNR system in the summer so that it can start being used from the end of the year.
"Today is a good day for Europe," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said in a statement. "The adoption of [PNR] increases citizens' security and police forces' ability to fight terrorism."
The data privacy concerns that surrounded the project were "understandable," Kirkhope said, but he also argued that its final version features data safeguards and is "proportionate to the risks we face."
The EU parliament approved the measure in a 461-179 vote at its plenary session in the French city of Strasbourg.
Hopes had also been high that sceptical lawmakers would be won over by a new EU data protection package that was almost simultaneously adopted by the parliament on Thursday.
It is meant to set a higher standard of data protection in the EU than the patchwork of national rules that currently exist. It also gives Europe's internet users more control over their personal data, including a clarified "right to be forgotten."
"This is ... a fierce European 'yes' to strong consumer rights and competition in the digital age," said EU lawmaker Jan Philipp Albrecht, who ushered the regulations through parliament.
The new rules are due to come into effect in 2018.
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