15th Jun 2021

European bank urges US to clarify snooping activity

The European Central Bank (ECB) 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.

In a letter to MEPs on Wednesday (31 January), the ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet said "the ECB has investigated possible alternatives to using SWIFT services and has had to conclude that at this stage no feasible alternatives are available."

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"The main issue at stake is to find ways to reconcile EU and non-EU data protection legislation, as well as to maintain a proper balance between such legislation and the legal instruments applied in the fight against terrorism," he wrote, according to Reuters.

Mr Trichet added that it would be impossible for the ECB to supervise SWIFT, saying it was outside of its expertise and it had to respect its confidentiality obligations.

SWIFT, a private Belgian money transfer company, violated EU data protection laws when it gave US intelligence information on millions of private European financial transactions, an independent EU panel concluded in November.

The name stands for the Society for Worldwide Inter-bank Financial Telecommunications and the company handles about 11 million financial transactions per day in more than 200 countries worldwide.

Its standard transfer format contains the names of the donor and receiver, the account number and bank address, as well as the amount and the intended purpose of the transfer.

It became known in June last year that officials from the CIA, the FBI and other US agencies had since 2001 been allowed to inspect the transfers as part of the global fight against terrorism.

But under EU law, it is illegal for companies to transfer confidential personal data to another country unless that country offers adequate protection.

SWIFT has defended its actions by saying that it was obliged to cooperate with Washington under US law since some of its branches are located in the US.

But this argument was rejected in September 2006 by a Belgian investigation which said SWIFT was subject to Belgian rules, regardless of whether the data transferred to US authorities came only from the company's US subsidiary or from its headquarters in Belgium.

EU justice and home affairs commissioner Franco Frattini – speaking before the European Parliament on Wednesday - fell short of shedding more light on whether the SWIFT case was unique or if telecommunication records and records of insurance companies were also being tapped, as Dutch liberal MEP Sophie In't Veld had asked.

Only seven member states replied to a European Commission letter, sent out in November last year, asking whether national governments were aware of similar cases and under which conditions banks use data through SWIFT.

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.

Finance chiefs blame 9/11 for EU bank snoop affair

Belgian financial company SWIFT and the European Central Bank (ECB) have told MEPs they did nothing wrong in a secret deal to send European bank data to the US, with Washington's war on terror putting increasing pressure on EU civil liberties since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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.

Belgium to probe US monitoring of international money transfers

Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt has ordered a probe into whether a Brussels-based banking consortium broke the law when it provided US anti-terror authorities with confidential information about international money transfers.

No cover up on SWIFT bank scandal, Brussels promises

The European Commission has promised there will be no cover up on questions about US access to EU bank data via the Belgian SWIFT system, but warned its investigation could hinge on niceties of EU law.

EU law violated in US banking data transfer scandal

The money-transfer company Swift has violated EU privacy rules when it secretly supplied the US authorities with millions of private bank transactions for use in anti-terror investigations, a Belgian commission has said.

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