Terrorists and other dangerous criminals operate around the globe, online, in networks and across borders. They regularly use airlines as a means of transport. The use of data on airline passengers, internationally known as passenger name records (PNRs), has already proven effective in other countries for fighting terrorism and other forms of serious crime. If Switzerland is to be able to use this efficient instrument, it needs to enact the required legislation. From April 13 to July 31, 2022 the consultation on the Passenger Name Records Act (PNRA) was conducted. Based on this, the message to Parliament is now being prepared.
- A passenger name record (PNR) contains the information that a passenger gives to airlines or travel agents when booking a flight: First names and surnames, contact details (including address and telephone number), travel agency, payment information, etc.
- This information can be useful in combating terrorism and serious crime. For example, it can be used before departure to identify persons who are listed in a police database; or to pinpoint and identify the perpetrator of a crime whose identity was previously unknown. When the police are investigating a suspect, they can use the PNR to track his or her travel movements.
- Around 70 countries worldwide, including all the EU states, already use PNR data to fight terrorism and serious crime. This is required by the international guidelines issued by the UN, ICAO and the EU. Airlines flying to a destination in the EU, for example, must provide the country concerned with the PNR data.
- The USA has made the use of PNRs a condition for Switzerland remaining in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This allows Swiss nationals to enter the United States without a visa for tourist or business purposes.
- However, Switzerland itself cannot yet systematically use PNR data because it lacks the legal basis for doing so. The Federal Act on the Processing of Passenger Name Records in order to Combat Terrorist Offences and Other Serious Criminal Offences, known as the Passenger Name Records Act (PNRA), is intended to change this.
Anyone who travels by air has to provide certain information when booking or checking in: this includes first names and surnames, contact details including an address and telephone number, the date of travel and itinerary, and also details relating to their baggage, method of payment and fellow travellers.
This information is entered by the airlines in a Passenger Name Record, PNR for short; this is also done in Switzerland. Air carriers already have to transmit this information to the authorities in countries that use PNRs, initially 48 to 24 hours before departure and a second time immediately after boarding has been completed. They are required to do so by the international guidelines issued by the UN, ICAO and the EU. For the airlines operating in Switzerland, these are not new, unfamiliar requirements.
PNR data give law enforcement agencies have an advantage in the fight against terrorism and serious crime. The analysis of PNR data makes it possible:
- to identify persons listed in police databases before departure;
- to detect suspicious persons, international networks and potential victims who are still unknown to the police based on criteria and profiles and take appropriate measures in good time;
- to obtain information on the travel movements of persons who have been reported missing or are wanted in an investigation.
This allows the police to uncover criminal organisations and networks and to identify suspicious persons, and even potential victims, for example of human trafficking. For the police, the options that PNRs offer in investigations mean they can save valuable time, because they can plan or carry out necessary measures in good time.
PNRs are also of economic importance to Switzerland:
Swiss citizens travelling to the USA on business or as tourists can do so without a visa thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme. However, the US makes the use of PNRs a condition for Switzerland remaining in the programme. Exclusion from the programme would have economic consequences for Switzerland because business travellers would no longer be able to travel to the USA as and when they please and trade relations between Switzerland and the USA would be damaged as a result.
For flights to a country that uses PNRs, air carriers are already required to transmit the information to the authorities there prior to flight. Unlike Switzerland, many countries around the world, including all the EU states, have already set up agencies to analyse passenger name records data for the purpose of fighting terrorism and other forms of serious crime.
Switzerland is planning to establish a national unit for processing passenger name records (the Passenger Information Unit, or PIU for short), based at fedpol. The unit will be staffed exclusively by specialists from the Confederation and the cantons, probably 20 to 30 employees in total. Only the PIU staff may access and process the passenger name records and transmit the results to the authorities (e.g. the police). The police can then take any measures that are necessary, such as arresting a suspicious person. Persons outside the PIU will not have direct access to PNR data.
Within the PIU, PNR data received from home and abroad are compared with data in police systems to check whether a person wanted for terrorism or serious crime is among the passengers. PNR data can also be examined according to certain criteria, such as the bookings or movement patterns typical of criminal networks or of persons involved in suspicious activities.
Matches that are found are still verified individually by PIU staff before they can be forwarded to the relevant authorities for more detailed checks on individuals or for other follow-up measures. Checks or other follow-up measures are only carried out on persons wanted by the police or if there is a genuine suspicion.
Both the intended use of PNRs and data access will be strictly regulated in the Passenger Name Records Act. PNR data may only be analysed for the purpose of identifying terrorists or other serious criminals.
Passengers will be informed that their PNR data is being used when they make their booking. Otherwise, law-abiding members of the public will not notice anything. PNR data for all passengers on an aircraft are already transmitted to the authorities of certain destination countries, provided that the country in question uses PNRs. Using PNRs makes flying safer because people suspected of terrorism or other serious crimes can be stopped from boarding the aircraft. Based on the analysis of PNR data, checks can also be targeted at suspicious persons, thus causing less disruption to the flow of other travellers.
The law gives top priority to protecting passengers' data and privacy. Sensitive data such as that on ethnic origin, political opinions, religious beliefs, health status or sexual orientation do not form part of the PNR data and may not be processed. In addition, the purpose for which PNR data can be used and access to the data will also be strictly regulated. PNR data may only be processed for combating terrorism and serious crime.
Only the staff of the National Passenger Information Unit (PIU) may access and process PNR data and transmit the results to the relevant authorities. Other authorities have no direct access to PNR data.
Hits from data matching are always verified first before they can be forwarded to the relevant authorities for a closer examination of persons or for other follow-up measures. Checks or other follow-up measures are only carried out on persons wanted by the police or if there is a genuine suspicion.
Anyone can ask fedpol whether the PIU is processing data about them.
Criminals operate globally, online, in networks, and across borders. Here is an example of a case that actually happened:
Several young women from Latvia had arrived in Nice on flights from Riga. They all lived in the same apartment. It was always the same travel agency in Riga that paid for the flight tickets. The police in Nice suspected human trafficking and a prostitution ring. They informed the Latvian police, who established that the status of the travel agency was unclear, and that the owner was suspicious. The French police contacted the Passenger Information Unit (PIU) in France. The PIU searched the PNR system for data on women who had bought a one-way ticket through a certain travel agency. Based on this analysis, after comparing several flights, it was possible to identify and arrest the trafficker that accompanied the victims on each flight.
Last modification 16.11.2023