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Watchdog attacks US swoop for bank secrets

London Guardian | February 2, 2007
Ian Traynor

Europe's main privacy watchdog yesterday said that the banking secrets and rights of millions of people and businesses were being abused on a massive scale by a clandestine programme giving US agencies access to the information. It accused the EU's banks and financial authorities of doing nothing to stop the breaches.

In a damning report on the covert transfer to US agencies of the details of millions of financial transactions by EU citizens, Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection supervisor, accused the European Central Bank of complicity in the system that has been used since 9/11 and which was deemed illegal by European data protection agencies two months ago.

The Belgium-based company Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) has been supplying the US Treasury and the CIA with details - such as names, account numbers and sums involved - allegedly as part of George Bush's "war on terror".
After 9/11, Swift agreed to cooperate with the US Treasury by creating a system where personal data is transferred to a "black box" owned by the US authorities, enabling "massive transfers of data" and the "focused searching" of the information by US agencies.

The Brussels-based company says it is obliged to cooperate with the US authorities because it is subject to US subpoenas and could be fined for ignoring the requests. The system, which is estimated to include the bank details of more than 4m Britons, was operated secretly for years until it was disclosed last summer.

A Belgian investigation into the scheme found that Swift was operating in uncertain legal territory. Privacy watchdogs across Europe concluded in November that the company was breaching data protection laws and privacy rights.

Mr Hustinx said yesterday that the Swift operation "has breached the trust and private lives of many millions of people". He accused the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank of failing to demand a halt to the operation and of keeping quiet for years on the controversy.

The ECB denied responsibility and called instead for the European and US governments to "clarify" the dilemmas thrown up by a clash between privacy rights and combating terrorism.

In the European parliament, MEPs demanded new rules to bring an end to the mass abuse of people's privacy and data protection rights. Mr Hustinx also warned that the US snooping on European bank transfers could expose European companies to economic espionage and jeopardise commercial transactions.

"What is at stake here is nothing less than the protection of fundamental rights of our citizens," said Jean-Marie Cavada, the French MEP heading the parliament's civil liberties committee.

Questions are also being asked as to whether the Swift case is the only instance of private data being trawled by the US agencies or if telephone, email and insurance data is also being made available.

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