21st Jun 2021

European Central Bank knew about US data access

The European Central Bank and the Bank of England were aware that customers' payment data were being transferred to US authorities, according to a document obtained by Belgium's Le Soir newspaper.

A consortium known as SWIFT, which manages the "Swift" codes for international payments, tried in vain to get permission from the Frankfurt and London banks to hand payment data to Washington, but the banks did not subsequently tell the government of Belgium - where SWIFT is based - that data was being transferred to the US.

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SWIFT, which stands for the "Society for Worldwide Inter-bank Financial Telecommunications" based just outside Brussels, was thrust into the limelight when the New York Times last week reported that officials from the CIA, the FBI and other US agencies had since 2001 been allowed to inspect the transfers.

The Belgian senate announced on Wednesday (28 June) that it had opened a case on the affair.

The office of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said in a statement that the probe will determine whether Belgian law and the rights of Belgian nationals were respected when information on financial transactions worldwide was passed on to US authorities.

The National Bank of Belgium (BNB) acknowledged that it knew of the transfers. But it claimed that it could do nothing about them as its primary task is to see to the soundness of financial transactions, not of data transfer.

The BNB leads an oversight group supervising SWIFTS's activities that includes the central banks of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and the European Central Bank.

Socialist MEPs want clarification

The European Parliament will debate the SWIFT case on Monday (3 July) after socialist lawmakers announced that they will take advantage of an already planned debate on the data of financial transfers.

French liberal MEP Jean-Marie Cavada criticised the US, saying "The United States only assumes the rights that detract the fundamental rights and principles of democracy. And they are doing it in an imperialistic way."

"The key question is where the data originated," said Kristof Van Quathem - a data protection adviser at Covington & Burling in Brussels – according to the International Herald Tribune.

"If it was transferred from the EU to the US, then that could breach European rules. A court in Iran can't just ask for a European company to reveal the sexual preference of a private individual, nor can a US court ask for private financial information about a citizen on the grounds of national security," he said.

According to Mr Van Quathem, Swift could face fines or an order to halt the transfers if it was found guilty of breaching laws in countries where complaints have been filed.

\"European judiciary\"

London-based human rights group Privacy International said it was alleging that SWIFT made the disclosures "without regard to legal process under data protection law" and without any legal basis or authority.

"This unlawful activity shows yet again how the US wilfully disregards the privacy rights not only of its own citizens, but also the rights of foreign nationals," said the head of the group Simon Davies in a statement.

"The scale of the operation is breathtaking, and the extent of privacy violation is almost without parallel. We will work to bring the programme to a halt pending further investigation."

A European diplomat said ironically however, that "in any case, the Americans have succeeded in doing what the Europeans cannot; creating a European judiciary. When you think that European judges spend years to obtain this kind of information," Liberation writes.

European bank urges US to clarify snooping activity

The European Central Bank has called on the EU and the US to urgently clarify the line between data protection and fighting terrorism, saying there is currently no alternative to the SWIFT money transfer system where the US has received personal information on EU citizens since 2001.

SWIFT broke EU data laws, panel says

Belgian money transfer company SWIFT violated EU data protection laws when it gave US intelligence information on millions of private European financial transactions, an independent EU panel has said, calling on the firm to immediately halt the data transfer.


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