(Section 5 of the Analysis of the AG Opinion in the “PNR Canada” Case: unlocking an “unprecedented and delicate” matter)
After he establishes that the Court should carry out “a strict review of compliance with the requirements resulting from the principle of proportionality, and more particularly, from the adequacy of the level of protection of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Union when Canada processes and uses the PNR data pursuant to the agreement envisaged” (§200), the AG further assesses if the interference is “strictly necessary”.
He considers the “strict necessity” test as a component of the proportionality test, together with “the ability of the interference to achieve the ‘public security’ objective pursued by the Agreement”.
With regard to the latter criterion, the AG does not believe “there are any real obstacles to recognising that the interference constituted by the agreement envisaged is capable of attaining the objective of public security, in particular the objective of combating terrorism and serious transnational crime” (§205). “As the United Kingdom Government and the Commission, in particular, have claimed, the transfer of PNR data for analysis and retention provides the Canadian authorities with additional opportunities to identify passengers, hitherto not known and not suspected, who might have connections with other persons and/or passengers involved in a terrorist network or participating in serious transnational criminal activities” (§205).
In addition, the AG finds the statistics provided by the Commission and the UK relevant to find that “the data constitutes a valuable tool for criminal investigations” (§205). He reaches this conclusion in spite of the fact that at §151, when summarizing the contributions of the parties before the Court, the AG recalls that “The Commission accepts that there are no precise statistics indicating the contribution which PNR data makes to the prevention and detection of crime and terrorism, and to the investigation and prosecution of offences of those types.”
With regard to the strict necessity of the interference, the AG establishes that its assessment “entails ascertaining whether the contracting parties have struck a ‘fair balance’ between the objective of combating terrorism and serious transnational crime and the objective of protecting personal data and respecting the private life of the persons concerned” (§207), by making a reference to §77 of the Schecke judgment. That paragraph in Schecke seems to me to establish a different principle – namely that, when balancing two opposing rights, one of which is the right to the protection of personal data, it must be taken into account that “derogations and limitations in relation to the protection of personal data must apply only in so far as is strictly necessary”.
Notwithstanding, the AG follows by stating that “the terms of the agreement envisaged must also consist of the measures least harmful to the rights recognised by Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter, while making an effective contribution to the public security objective pursued by the agreement envisaged” (§208). He explains:
“That means that it is not sufficient to imagine, in the abstract, the existence of alternative measures that would be less intrusive in the fundamental rights at issue. Those alternative measures must also be sufficiently effective, that is to say, their effectiveness must, in my view, be comparable with those provided for in the agreement envisaged, in order to attain the public security objective pursued by that agreement” (§208).
In quite a big leap, AG Mengozzi relies for this twofold test for necessity on a paragraph in the Schwartz judgment, §53, which states that “the Court has not been made aware of any measures which would be both sufficiently effective in helping to achieve the aim of protecting against the fraudulent use of passports and less of a threat to the rights recognised by Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter than the measures deriving from the method based on the use of fingerprints.”
This twofold test is not used in any of the most recent landmark judgments of the Court – DRI, which relies greatly on the analysis of the condition of “necessity”, and Schrems. However, looking at strict necessity through this lens of proportionality and equivalent effectiveness persuaded the AG to conclude that PNR schemes, even if they constitute the kind of interference he accurately described in §176, are acceptable.
Comparing the wealth of PNR data to data collected usually for border control purposes by immigration authorities, including Advance Passenger Information and information collected by Canadian authorities for their eVA program, the AG concluded that “data of that type (API, eVA – my note) does not reveal information about the booking methods, payment methods used and travel habits, the cross-checking of which can be useful for the purposes of combating terrorism and other serious transnational criminal activities. Independently of the methods used to process that data, the API and the data required for the issue of an eVA are therefore not sufficient to attain with comparable effectiveness the public security objective pursued by the agreement envisaged” (§214).
The AG further justifies that PNR data of all passengers are transferred to the Canadian authorities, “even though there is no indication that their conduct may have a connection with terrorism or serious transnational crime” (215) by arguing that “as the interested parties have explained, the actual interest of PNR schemes, whether they are adopted unilaterally or form the subject matter of an international agreement, is specifically to guarantee the bulk transfer of data that will allow the competent authorities to identify, with the assistance of automated processing and scenario tools or predetermined assessment criteria, individuals not known to the law enforcement services who may nonetheless present an ‘interest’ or a risk to public security and who are therefore liable to be subjected subsequently to more thorough individual checks” (§216).
He finds at §244, referring to the fact that the Agreement involves transfers of data of all passengers between the Union and Canada, irrespective of whether they are suspects or not, that “no other measure which, while limiting the number of persons whose PNR data is automatically processed by the Canadian competent authority, would be capable of attaining with comparable effectiveness the public security aim pursued by the contracting parties has been brought to the Court’s attention in the context of the present proceedings”.
The AG therefore concluded that “generally, the scope ratione personae of the agreement envisaged cannot be limited further without harming the very object of the PNR regimes” (§245).
Another characteristic of PNR schemes that is generally considered questionable – the lack of an ex ante control of access to PNR data, is found justifiable by the AG in the light of the “fair balance” test for strict necessity: “the appropriate balance that must be struck between the effective pursuit of the fight against terrorism and serious transnational crime and respect for a high level of protection of the personal data of the passengers concerned does not necessarily require that a prior control of access to the PNR data must be envisaged” (§269).
Therefore, the idea of PNR schemes seems to be compatible with the fundamental rights to data protection and respect for private life, in the view of AG Mengozzi. However, the list of conditions he develops for the Agreement in the current case to be fully compliant with EU primary law is quite long and quite strict and it bears bad news for other similar arrangements.
 §77 of Schecke states this: “It is thus necessary to determine whether the Council of the European Union and the Commission balanced the European Union’s interest in guaranteeing the transparency of its acts and ensuring the best use of public funds against the interference with the right of the beneficiaries concerned to respect for their private life in general and to the protection of their personal data in particular. The Court has held in this respect that derogations and limitations in relation to the protection of personal data must apply only in so far as is strictly necessary (Satakunnan Markkinapörssi and Satamedia, paragraph 56).”