What America's Data Espionage Scandal Reveals About European Vulnerability

The European Union has plenty to fear from the revelations of Edward Snowden, but may be caught between the costs and benefits of America's vast network of data collection.

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland
Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland
Jean-Pierre Stroobants and Frederic Lemaitre

BRUSSELS - On June 10, the European Commission voiced its “concern” about the consequences of Prism, the U.S. surveillance program that allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to access the data of non-U.S. citizens, including EU citizens.

Viviane Reding, the Europe's Justice Commissioner, was notably quiet and avoided an open clash with the U.S., apparently more focused on denouncing EU member states that had blocked her personal data protection plan in Luxemburg on June 6. Still, in talks with American authorities, the commissioner did “systematically” raise the issue of the rights of EU citizens, her spokeswoman said.

Indeed, the revelations from ex-CIA analyst Edward Snowden come in the middle of delicate -- and lengthy -- negotiations in Europe about how to protect citizens' privacy in the era of massive data collection.

Discussions on the DPR (Data Protection Regulation) have been ongoing for 18 months and 25 meetings; 3,000 amendments to the regulation have been proposed, a sign of how divided the EU is on the issue. A few hours before the story was published in the Guardian newspaper, Ministers of Justice from the 27 member countries were holding a meeting on the subject; had they known about his revelations, they might have come to an agreement.

Britain and The Netherlands believe the Reding project would be too punitive for companies, France is asking for more controls on social networks, while Germany says the text is too vague. But now that the revelations on Prism have come to light, the European capitals can at least agree on one thing: they are all feeling “concerned.”

The same adjective was used by the European Commission in 2000, when it was revealed that Anglo-Saxon countries were spying on European telecommunications through a global surveillance network called Echelon. This strategic program was led by the NSA, which would intercept communication to access economic, commercial, technological and political information. This was a breach of EU legislation and of the fundamental rights of its citizens.

At the time, London used its special relationship with Washington to spy on its European rivals. Both capitals denied it; European leaders chose to forget that the person in charge of the Cipher Office had declared having “very good contacts with the NSA,” who would have had been given access to classified Commission transmissions. The communications expert later sent a letter to his boss saying his words had been “misconstrued.”

Passenger information and industrial espionage

Then the 9/11 attacks happened – which Echelon was not able to prevent – and to fight terrorism, European countries conceded important transfers of data to the American authorities, sometimes voluntarily, mostly under constraint. In 2006, they learned that for the past five years, Washington had secretly been accessing the database of Swift, a Belgium-based company that secures financial messages exchanged between banks around the world.

After the initial shock had passed, difficult negotiations started and an agreement was signed in 2010. Europe obtained the right to decide if the U.S. demands were justified; a EU representative is now stationed in Washington to control American proceedings; and an assessment report is published twice a year to keep track of data security and potential incidents, etc.

The debate on Passenger Name Records (PNR) was also very complex. After nine years of discussions and four versions of the text, a consensus was finally reached in April 2012. Europe’s main priority was to avoid bi-lateral agreements that would have offered little guarantees. So they ended up agreeing on a list of 19 items of data that air passengers would have to disclose when entering the U.S. or flying over their territory. This personal data is anonymized after six months; it is stored in an “active” database for five years, and then remains in a “dormant” one for ten years.

Europe failed to resolve a key issue: out of the four global companies that store passenger information worldwide, three are based in the U.S., and are subject to the law of that country. If an incident happens, Europe has no legal power on those companies. As with Prism, the EU has been forced to admit that it is systematically lagging behind the times, and that its scope for action is limited.

Currently, Europe is trying to negotiate the right for its citizens to engage in legal proceedings to correct errors in their personal data, on the databases held by private U.S. companies. American citizens living in Europe already have this right.

Liberal European Parliament member Sophie in’t Veld, hopes the revelations on the NSA will “raise awareness” among Europeans, and force them to become more demanding. A senior EU official has a different take on the subject.

“This case confirms that the United States are the leaders in terms of anti-terrorism, and that many States wouldn’t dare confront them.” According to him there is “little doubt” the UK and other countries have benefited from information obtained through Prism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably be the first EU leader to bring up the subject with Barack Obama when the American president visits Berlin on June 18 and 19.

The case is all the more sensitive that privacy is highly valued in Germany, and that the documents leaked in The Guardian show the country was one of the most targeted for data collection by Prism. According to a Brussels expert, this could mean that U.S. authorities were also engaging in industrial espionage – something Washington was already denying during the Echelon scandal. On Monday, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice in Berlin said that the administration was looking into “potential violations of the rights of German citizens”.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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