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SWIFT, the EU, and the data-greedy N(U)SA.

start: 06.02.2010

What is SWIFT?

SWIFT is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication founded 1973 with seat in Belgium. SWIFT is an international co-operative of over 8000 banks in over 200 countries, for the purpose of exchanging data concerning cross-border financial transfers amongst the members. The daily churn amounts to about 15 million transactions representing about 5000 billion Euro.
What kind of data? Bank A informs Bank B that it has a transfer order from customer X, and Bank B should withdraw the sum from account K on date D and pass it on to recipient Y.

The EU Council of Ministers and the US-EU data-sharing treaty (situation pre Lisbon Treaty)

US authorities have already had informal access to european SWIFT data over a longer period (since September 9, 2001?). For counter-terrorism purposes. Recently a plan was formulated to legalize (and expand?) this access. For this, the USA has been lobbying intensely in Brussels.
The behind-the-scenes pressure from the USA was successful: on 30.11.2009, exactly on the eve of the day when the new EU constitution (amended Treaty of Lisbon) was to come into force, an interim version of the planned new SWIFT data access treaty with the USA was agreed to by the EU foreign ministers. Planned coming into force is 01.02.2010 (was delayed).
Why this hurry? The new EU constitution gives the EU Parliament (until then a largely impotent discussion club) the power of co-deciding on legislature. And the planned SWIFT treaty is not universally supported by the fractions in this parliament, especially not after the attempt by the EU Council to bypass the Parliament.


* The USA gains unilateral access to data of citizens in foreign countries.
* The data are collected en masse without the expression of a concrete suspicion.
* There is no control whatsoever over the data once they are in the hands of US authorities.
* This is one of the examples in which the current US institutional culture is imposed on non-US citizens.

The EU Parliament (EP) and the US-EU data-sharing treaty (situation post Lisbon Treaty)

On 04.02.2010 the EP's civil liberties committee voted to reject the agreement, arguing that it breaches the EU's stringent data protection laws. If its view is shared by a majority of members of the EP at a plenary vote on 11.02.2010, the planned agreement in its current form would have to be withdrawn.
Meantime, the USA has threatened to apply pressure to individual European countries, presumably Belgium and the Netherlands, i.e. the countries hosting SWIFT.

[update 13.02.2010] Source (7)
Against the urging of the EU Council of Ministers, the European Parliament has rejected the planned SWIFT interim agreement. The justification was based on concerns wrt. data privacy, disproportionality, and legal asymmetry. The USA expressed its anger, as expected.

This is a gratifying decision, both as regards the unsatisfactory content of the agreement itself, and from the point of view of the EU citizens, whose interests are -now- far better represented by the EU Parliament than by the EU Council. The EU Council represents the member state politicians, therefore EU citizens only from afar, and is highly prone to the influence of lobbyists. This has been amply demonstrated time and again.

Sources (e.g.):

[1] Frankfurter Rundschau "Swift-Abkommen: Den US-Geheimdiensten ausgeliefert", 13.11.2009 [german]

[2] Short News "Umstrittenes SWIFT-Abkommen kurz vor Lissaboner Vertrag abgesegnet", 30.11.2009 [german]

[3] EU Parliament "SWIFT: European Parliament to vote on interim agreement at February session", 21.01.2010

[4] IDG News Service "US-EU Data-sharing Faces Threat From European Parliament", 05.02.2010

[5] Frankfurter Rundschau "Bankdatenaustausch: USA drohen EU-Parlament", 05.02.2010 [german]

[6] BBC News "Euro MPs shun bank data deal with US", 05.02.2010

[7] BBC News "European Swift bank data ban angers US", 11.02.2010