Tuesday

21st May 2019

Bank data transfer deal with US reached

  • The US will continue to access bank transfer data from Europe as part of anti-terrorist queries (Photo: SWIFT)

EU justice ministers approved a provisional bank data transfer deal with the United States, allowing American anti-terrorist investigators to access European financial transaction data for another nine months.

The interim agreement had sparked controversy among European Greens and Liberals, who cited data privacy concerns and slammed member states for "rushing" to get the deal done before the European Parliament acquires more powers in this field. A day later, with the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the legislature would have had a bigger say on the agreement.

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Germany and Austria also threatened to veto the deal, but abstained in the end. Their primary concern was that personal information could be transferred to US authorities and handed on to other governments.

"We have major problems with the agreement," Austrian interior minister Maria Fekter told reporters ahead of the meeting.

But she also recognised that "reduced legal protection is better than no protection at all."

"We have the option of abstaining, and to make a declaration on where we see the problems," she said.

The data transferred under the agreement includes name, address, national identification number and other personal data related to financial messages. European investigators, however, have no reciprocal means of obtaining similar data on US transactions.

"That would have to be negotiated next year as part of the final agreement, together with the European Parliament," one EU official said. The current interim deal only avoids a legal gap for the US side, as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) is relocating its database from US soil to Switzerland by the end of the year.

The interim agreement will come into force on 1 February and last for nine months, but can still be annulled by the European Parliament, who will have to give its consent on the deal at some point in the spring. Germany had reportedly asked for an even shorter deadline, of six months, to end this arrangement.

US treasury under-secretary Stuart Levey welcomed the interim agreement and said the information provided so far under the "Terrorist finance tracking programme" had helped investigators in thwarting terrorist plots.

He also rejected the privacy concerns noting that last year the EU had appointed a special expert to assess how American authorities were dealing with the data.

The French judge, Louis Bruguiere, concluded that the US was not abusing the gathered information and that the programme had "significant security benefits for the EU" itself.

In one of the cases, data gathered under this scheme helped the thwarting of a terrorist plot to attack transatlantic airline flights last year, leading to the conviction of three individuals in September 2009 in the UK. They were all sentenced to over 30 years in prison.

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