In a move that seems to mark a huge breach of personal privacy, US customs will have direct access to all European airline databases from 5 March after the European Commission finally agreed last week to hand over all passenger information to US authorities.

Under section 231 of the US' Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Act, airlines flying to the US are required to send a PNR (passenger name record) to US officials 15 minutes after takeoff. This new agreement means all PNRs must be received prior to departure, giving America the power to remove passengers from a plane that's still on the runway in another country.

But sharing that same information between EU countries is not permitted under the Data Protection Act and the worry from a privacy point of view is who will be able to view this information.

"Anyone who believes that US customs, which is now part of the Home Security Department, will limit itself solely to downloading information on passengers booked to fly to the US is very naive," said Tony Bunyan, editor of civil liberties website Statewatch.

"US Customs will have access to passenger details in advance and will be running the name through all the available intelligence databases, so there is every likelihood they will try to stop 'suspected' individuals from boarding the plane," he added.

According to Statewatch, there is no agreed limit on how many agencies in the US will get access to the information. The European Union said it respected the "good faith of US Customs" to protect the principles of the Data Protection Act.

"We were fully behind the Americans in their fight against terrorism and we wanted to promote co-operation and flexibility," EU spokesman Gilles Gantelet told Yahoo news service.

"Of course we have this very difficult legal situation. We think assurances given by the United States are sufficient for the law."

The European Commission described this as a transitional agreement until a formal arrangement has been approved by the 15 EU governments and the European Parliament.

Statewatch says that airlines that do not co-operate will be liable to a $1,000 (£630) fine per violation.
Airlines invade personal privacy