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30th Jun 2022

Terrorist data oversight tainted by potential conflict of interest

  • TFTP provides the US authorities information on international financial transactions via the European transactions processing firm Swift. (Photo: SWIFT)

A high-ranking European commission official says there is a conflict of interest in a review board tasked to ensure personal data on suspected terrorists shared with the Americans is secured and properly handled.

Account numbers, names, addresses, transaction amounts, dates, branch locations are exchanged between law enforcement authorities in Europe and the US under the so-called terrorist financing tracking programme (TFTP).

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The reciprocal exchange, often shrouded in secrecy because of stringent US national security protocol, has generated heated debates among data protection advocates and some MEPs who say it breaches EU data protection laws.

TFTP advocates say the data has helped stopped a number of terrorist suspects including several al-Shabaab members in Europe that led to the arrest of the mastermind behind a double suicide attack in Uganda which killed 74 people.

But some data exchanged has been demonstrated to have breached EU data protection laws, says German Green MEP Jan Philip Albrecht.

Two review boards, one American and another EU, have been created to ensure that exchange standards under the international agreement are respected.

But the EU review team, composed of three members from the European Commission's home affairs directorate, is also staffed by two individuals who are on a joint-supervisory body (JSB) linked to Europol.

“It is quite an important point of reflection in what in normal European circles, you would call a conflict of interest,” said Reinhard Priebe, Director for Internal Security at the commission’s directorate for home affairs, on Tuesday (18 December).

“Having discussed in the review and having watched over several hours on how Europol mechanisms function and to what extent JSB should be involved in that, I didn’t find it a very fortunate situation that in my review team there were two people about to review themselves because they are also members of the JSB,” noted Priebe.

The two in question are data protection experts, one from Belgium and another from the Netherlands.

One of the two experts is Paul Breitbarth from the Dutch data protection authority. He told this website in an email that he too had heard the allegations but wished not to comment.

Priebe, who chairs the EU review team, says the two JSB members have also stirred resentment from the commission for not sharing relevant Europol information with them despite sitting on the same team.

For her part, Dutch Liberal deputy Sophie in 't Veld said the EU had signed off on the TFTP agreement without really understanding the implications.

But the allegations made by Priebe over the JSB members are “serious”, she told this website. “What conflict of interests could there be with the JSB?”

She said the commission had refused to release the JSB conclusions because they were apparently incorrect according to the Brussels-executive.

The JSB report, which details how the terrorist-fighting authorities share the personal data, are now kept secret, she noted.

Three and half pages of the JSB report had been released to the public in June and stated that financial transactions data is handed over to the Americans “for a timeframe containing every single day of the year, year on year.”

Meanwhile, the safeguards to ensure the agreements are properly applied, like the closed monitoring systems arranged by the two internal review teams, are “a joke”, said In 't Veld.

“Maybe the agreements are being applied, maybe there are not. I don’t know. I have no way of telling,” she said.

In a separate incident, the JSB in mid-October had also come under fire from the US Treasury when they shared US classified documents with deputies on the committee of justice and home affairs.

The US Treasury filed a complaint with the commission and says handing over the documents “is clear violation of applicable security rules and a breach of mutual trust.”

EU hands personal data to US authorities on daily basis

EU and US co-operation in combatting terrorism remains shrouded in secrecy as Europol, the EU police agency, refuses to render public an inspection report that details how financial data is handed over to US authorities.

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