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25th Sep 2022

Opinion

Tough demands from European Parliament included in bank data deal with US

  • The bank data transfer agreement topped Cecilia Malmstrom's agenda since her first day in office (Photo: European Commission)

The new EU agreement allowing bank data to be transferred to the US for anti-terrorism purposes fulfills the European Parliament's tough demands for data protection, EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom writes, urging MEPs to vote in favour of the deal on Thursday.

The attempted liquid bomb plot at Heathrow airport in 2006, the Islamic Jihad Union in Germany in 2007, and the Jakarta hotel bombings in 2009: these are examples of terrorist plots and attacks where information from the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP) played a significant role in identifying, investigating or prosecuting the individuals responsible.

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On 8 July, the European Parliament is expected to take a crucial decision on the future of the fight against terrorism as the Members of the European Parliament will be called to give their consent to the TFTP agreement that has been negotiated between the European Commission and the United States.

The agreement allows the transfer to US authorities - under strict data protection conditions - of certain categories of data regarding bank operations carried out via the Swift system. Once transferred, the data can be accessed only when relevant to anti-terrorism investigations and each extraction must be justified by evidence.

The TFTP, managed by the US Treasury Department, was established following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. It allowed US authorities to monitor terrorist financing activities and prevent attacks not only on US territory, but also in Europe and elsewhere.

From 2001 to 2009, US authorities had access to information on money transfers via the Swift database based on US territory. But as some of the Swift servers moved to Europe on 1 January 2010, US authorities lost access to significant amounts of data and leads on known suspects have gone cold.

In February 2010 a first interim agreement to allow US authorities' access to these data was rejected by the European Parliament, which considered it insufficient as regards the protection of the privacy of EU citizens.

This was during my very first week as commissioner for home affairs and it became one of my top priorities to negotiate as quickly as possible a new agreement that both the EU institutions and the US could agree on.

I have now done this. Thanks to the significant progress made with the new agreement, the US Treasury Department is now committed to making information available so that EU citizens know what activities are carried out within the TFTP framework.

Unlike the first agreement rejected by the European Parliament, the new draft grants European citizens' access to administrative and judicial redress. EU citizens will have the right to have their data corrected, cancelled or blocked if any errors are found.

The European police office (Europol) will verify that information requested by US authorities is necessary for fighting terrorism. Europol will also have to verify that each and every request is tailored as narrowly as possible in order to minimise the amount of data requested.

If the US request does not meet these requirements, the data will not be transferred.

The European Commission will appoint an independent person who will have direct access on the spot to data searches within the TFTP and monitor scrupulously that these activities comply with privacy provisions under the agreement. In addition, a review team, including representatives of data protection authorities, will ensure that privacy rules are fully respected and, if this should not be the case, the agreement can be terminated.

Furthermore, the agreement provides for the EU to build its own system, equivalent to TFTP. The US commits to provide assistance to create such a European system. An EU program equivalent to the TFTP would reduce data transfers to US authorities.

The new agreement is an achievement for all EU institutions and in particular the European Parliament, whose tough demands for enhanced protection of European citizens' privacy have been fulfilled. The new agreement offers a twofold guarantee to European citizens: first, complete transparency as far as access and use of data are concerned and second, access to appropriate tools and redress procedures to make sure that privacy is protected. And we should not forget the initial purpose of it all: the TFTP is a key instrument in our fight against terrorism.

I now expect the European Parliament to give its consent to the new agreement so that it can be formally concluded. We all know that given our painful history with totalitarian regimes, the transfer of data is a very sensitive issue in Europe. But it is the moment to acknowledge that this agreement which both protects EU citizens' privacy and ensures their security is the proof that we can find appropriate safeguards to accommodate these legitimate concerns.

Cecilia Malmstrom is the EU's home affairs commissioner

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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