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SWIFT data sharing

July 30, 2009

The European Union will insist on being given equal access to US data on SWIFT bank transfers when the two sides negotiate a permanent deal on information-sharing as a way of fighting terrorism.

Graphic showing CIA agents checking bank details
The EU wants equal access with the US to SWIFT dataImage: DW-Montage/picture-alliance/dpa

The EU will "ensure full, perfect reciprocity" in access to European and US SWIFT data files, EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot told journalists in Brussels.

That would give the authorities in the EU the right to look at data on bank transfers stored on US servers and to use them to track down terrorist networks, a right the US authorities already have.

Barrot's statement came after EU foreign ministers on Monday mandated Sweden, current holder of the bloc's presidency, to start talks with the US on an interim data-sharing agreement.

SWIFT system no stranger to controversy

The international system for bank transfers known as SWIFT, manages international bank transfers from more than 200 countries.

In 2006, the company found itself embroiled in controversy, when it was discovered that transfer data was being monitored by US intelligence.

The organization held a so-called 'mirror' server in the US, logging all the activity on its European system, giving US authorities access to information, in a way that was deemed unlawful by the EU.

At the time, SWIFT defended its actions saying it was bound by US law, in the fight against terrorism.

SWIFT is now set to move its servers to Europe in a bid to protect users' privacy.

The US was monitoring SWIFT data servers in 2006

But US anti-terror agencies, who have hitherto been able to use the SWIFT data to track terrorist financing because the computers holding those data were on their territory, want to keep that access - a request that would require a new international agreement.

For internal reasons, the EU is not yet in a position to sign a permanent deal, leaving a security gap of a few months, in which US officials cannot access the information on the servers in Europe.

The EU wants to make sure that any future deal is approved by the European Parliament.

That will only be possible if the bloc's Lisbon Treaty is brought into force - something not expected to happen until at least the end of the year.

To avoid a "security gap," EU member states therefore want to set up an interim deal extending the current system while they negotiate a new, more balanced deal with the US.

Interim deal angers parliamentarians

EU foreign ministers cleared the way for such a deal on Monday, which annoyed European parliamentarians, who think they are being sidelined.

Jacques Barrot
Barrot rejected claims of cutting MEPS out of the loopImage: picture alliance/dpa

But EU justice chief Barrot has rejected that claim, saying that the parliament would be fully consulted on any final deal and accusing the critics of "twisting the truth."

"We are finding it very difficult to understand why the facts have been twisted, and I thought I had put it before the parliament in a very objective way," Barrot said.

The data-sharing agreement is also deeply controversial as European civil liberties groups believe it violates privacy rights.

Barrot insists the US only wants the information to fight terrorism, which is a common goal.

"It's not just to keep the US happy, but rather, we want to ensure that the fight against terrorism is not interrupted in any way."

EU wants equal access in any deal

The European Commission is also now stressing the deal is a two-way street and that in any permanent agreement, it will negotiate unfettered access to banking information held by the US.

Barrot wants to soothe concerns over how the information would be used.

"We are convinced that the American treasury is just using this for anti-terrorist purposes and they are not keeping that data beyond a certain period."

The bottom line, he says, is that it would be very dangerous, at this point, to stop the surveillance of information flows, while a new deal is negotiated.

But that does not seem have won over the critics- which is why Brussels is using a different argument now- saying it will demand equal access to US data.

Author: Nina-Maria Potts (nda)

Editor: Neil King