BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union and the United States on Wednesday struck two deals designed to ensure U.S. access to private and bank data in its war against terrorism while trying to allay European privacy concerns.
Top EU and U.S. officials reached agreement on the transfer to the United States of private data on transatlantic air passengers, said EU officials.
EU envoys also approved arrangements setting conditions for the U.S. Treasury Department to consult records of the international banking network SWIFT in anti-terrorism investigations, EU diplomats said.
Data privacy has been a thorn in EU-U.S. relations since Washington stepped up anti-terrorism efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. EU legislators and rights groups have criticised U.S. methods and called for better privacy safeguards.
The air passenger data deal was sealed in talks between EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff over the phone on Wednesday.
"Schaeuble, Frattini and Chertoff agreed," said EU spokesman Friso Roscam Abbing. Details of the accord must now be approved by the EU's 27 member countries. They will study it on Friday.
Under an interim agreement reached in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, European airlines must pass on up to 34 items of passenger data, including address and credit card details, before clearance to land at U.S. airports.
An EU diplomat said data would be kept for 15 years under the new arrangement, while the number of pieces of information would be reduced.
Under the interim accord, information can be held between 3-1/2 and 11-1/2 years.
The EU had warned airlines would be left in a legal limbo and exposed to privacy complaints if no replacement deal had been reached before the interim one expired at the end of July.
Under the deal backed by EU ambassadors on Wednesday and to be rubber-stamped by ministers on Thursday, the United States could only use SWIFT data for counter-terrorism purposes and keep it for a maximum of five years, a diplomat said.
The EU and the United States began talks after watchdogs said last year SWIFT broke European privacy laws by allowing the U.S. Treasury Department to secretly consult its records in anti-terrorism investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Washington has said the access was essential for its global drive to dry up funding sources for suspected terrorist cells.
A European official will be appointed to monitor how the data is used.
Brussels-based SWIFT, which handles global financial transfers, is a cooperative owned by roughly 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries that use it. It said its U.S. office was obliged to obey U.S. subpoenas.
It welcomed the deal. "In conjunction with other initiatives SWIFT is taking, it will provide much needed legal certainty for SWIFT and the international banking community," a spokesman for the company, Euan Sellar, said.
SWIFT announced this month it would modify its messaging architecture to ensure intra-European data would be stored only in Europe, and not in the United States. It said it would take three to four years to put the new system in place.