UK Liberty

Has the PNR been useful in combatting terrorism?

Posted in accountability, politicians on liberty, surveillance society by ukliberty on August 7, 2008

The EU Select Committee:

44. Most significant of all, Ms Hillier’s letter [“to explain the success of the use of PNR by the Home Office pilot for the e-Borders scheme, Project Semaphore”] contains no reference to terrorism, and none of the examples she lists bears any relation to terrorism. Likewise, in oral evidence she was unable to give an example of the successful use of PNR in relation to a terrorist-related offence.

She did assert that PNR “has absolutely been a tool in tackling terrorism”, and explained the problems of sharing information about this in public (Q 28).

However such a statement is unpersuasive when not accompanied by even a claim that PNR has succeeded in preventing, or assisting in the prevention of, a single terrorist attack, or bringing to justice the perpetrators of such an attack.

Although the Committee says later on that “We are [now] persuaded that PNR data, when used in conjunction with data from other sources, can significantly assist in the identification of terrorists, whether before a planned attack or after such an attack”, no-one seems to be able to say how useful it is – in other words, what contribution it makes.

Similarly, Mr Hustinx told us that when the US Secretary of Homeland Security was addressing the European Parliament “he was careful to annex a list of some 20 or so examples to his speech and it was all about drugs and people evading paying taxes and things like that, but there was very little in terms of precision on terrorism” (Q 170).

45. Ms Hillier represents the view that PNR data are but one in an arsenal of weapons which can be used to deal on a day-to-day basis with crimes, not all of which would be regarded as particularly serious, and with combating illegal immigration even when this is unrelated to a criminal offence (QQ 2, 10, 15). Ms Sophie in’t Veld MEP put to us the opposite view: that the capture and use of PNR data by the authorities should be used wholly exceptionally, and only where it can be shown to have helped in combating terrorism or other organised crimes of similar gravity.


46. Ms in’t Veld looks not just for assertions that PNR data have been of assistance in tackling terrorism, but for evidence of this. So far she has not found it; nor has Mr Hustinx, who described such evidence as there was as “scanty” and “anecdotal” (Q 167). As Ms in’t Veld said: “If the people who are proposing this are so convinced that it is useful then I am sure they have all the supporting evidence … It is just that they have never produced it and every time you get the same argument, ‘Oh, no, we cannot tell you that for security purposes’ … All we have asked for, for example, is facts and figures which would not give away any operational details … all you get are horror stories by Mr Chertoff[26] which impress his audience, but, sorry, we are legislators. If I put my stamp of approval as a Member of Parliament on the law then I want to be absolutely sure that it has a solid justification, and we just never get any proper evidence” (QQ 96-97). Ms Verkleij saw no reason to exclude parliaments from this kind of debate (Q 155).

Round of applause for Ms in’t Veld, I think.

The evidence is interesting.


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