Borders, PNR and a whole lot of political guff – 1 May 2012

In another classic week for the British government, the austerity games have claimed another badly chosen victim.. that of the mostly affluent and fickle foreign business traveller.. there’s literally nothing a business traveller wants more than to stand cheek by jowl with other fed-up sweaty business travellers for three hours to be badly greeted by a poorly paid, fed up and in dwindling numbers border guard at Heathrow. I mean, it would certainly encourage me to want to come back: wouldn’t it you? Shares in video-conferencing up. Shares in the airports operator, down. But this is being done for security. So it’s very important. Very, very important. Particularly when we have our £20billion sports day to hold in the summer. Best set up some missile sites to shoot down passenger planes too. But more of this later.

The government’s classic week continued to brew up though. The Prime Minister’s text messages to and from the former editor of the defunct News of the World are to be handed over to the Leveson inquiry (cross your fingers and hope for the best!), that best of spoonerisms has been widely accused of breaching the ministerial code (even by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler – he of Butler Report fame) and of being a human shield for the PM (which might become an important role as the Leveson train chugs on) and to show that he’s not an unpleasant bloke the PM was atrociously rude to the octogenarian Dennis Skinner. And let’s face it, when you really want to show how tough you are.. you should always go and find the nearest 80year old to be rude to (ummmm). It was a hero’s response, statesman like, composed. What’s that you say? He looked flustered and purple. Oh, that’s the most statesman like look.

But all of this is the Life on Mars version of politics. The lost decade of the 70s is back in. High unemployment, economy on the skids, bad fashion sense, and a government listing badly only two years in. All Cameron needs is a pipe, or a yacht.. the latter more likely than the former one feels.

Under the radar, however, comes the European Parliament’s decision to ratify the Passenger Name Record agreement (PNR)with the US (well, effectively the Department for Homeland Security). To put cards on the table I did some work on this in 2010, and even went to brief some US and EU politicians on it too.. so I have views. Which on that occasion ran to twenty odd pages, an exec summary and a short presentation.. REF Gods, note the potential impact… My problem with this particular agreement was:

Absence of reciprocity – the flow of information was all one way, and there was a blank no to the idea that it would come the other way.

Tradability – my view was that the EU had a valuable commodity (information) and should barter it. Giving it up ‘for free’ was irrational: still is.

Extraterritoriality – the EU had no sensible defence to the extraterritoriality of these or other rules. Only in container scanning has a sensible arrangement been reached where both the EU and the US born the extra costs of this enhanced security. That seems entirely reasonable to me.

Ownership – once the data has been shared the EU has no effective control over it (obviously) nor where it might end up. That’s not to say the DHS would do anything unpleasant or untoward with the information, this is more a civil liberties-privacy point. This data becomes further and further remote from the object behind the data – you or I.

Scope – if the agreement has been pared down to just being that PNR affecting transatlantic movements then I am more content with it than before: a citizen can effectively opt out of the provisions by not travelling across the Atlantic. Previous proposals had included all EU PNR data regardless of its transatlantic qualities or not, that seemed disproportionate to me.

So, to connect up the two parts of this post. You have on the one hand a ratcheting of the security measures regarding travel, both on the domestic border and transatlantically, whilst reducing the money to do so (within the European area) *note though, that this implies the absence of preventive intelligence.. border guarding is like goal keeping, if it’s down to your keeper you’re in big trouble. We should be able to observe an off-shoring of European security to our American cousins, which is not without implication, particularly as – in the case of UK – US  intel relations they’re unsure of the leak-proof-ness of ours courts. For me, this is a re-hash of the old ‘sharing the burden’ vibe in military affairs – if us Europeans are serious about security we have to behave seriously about it. We either have to lay down our own standards and markers and stand behind them, or we comply to US standards (ourselves, not just rely on the US to help us out) and fund them appropriately. It’s exasperating that we have to observe this now in security as we had done in military affairs.

If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it. It’s Life on Mars… but without the cool car..


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