For some time now, I’ve been meaning to blog about the big issue bubbling away over SWIFT, and the access to SWIFT records demanded by the US authorities.I remember having lunch with some executives at SWIFT back in the summer of 2006, when the news first broke about this. Back then, the New York Times had just broken the previously secretive story that SWIFT was sharing bank data with the US authorities, after having been subpoenaed to share such data. The aim was to track terrorist funding and any transactions that involved suspected terrorist related activities were shared. The problem is (a) what right does the USA have to subpoenae and access the records of a Europe-based institution and (b) how does SWIFT ensure it's just limited to terrorism records, and not the records of you and I.
SWIFT weren't happy about this action, and particularly that it had now come into public domain. One SWIFT executive said to me: “when that New York Times journalist is walking around the next Ground Zero and sees the thousands of bodies caused by his exposing this story, see how happy he is then.” Over a glass of wine, he admitted that he’d like to crush the bones of the journalist and bury him six feet under.You see SWIFT is meant to be private. It’s a bank consortia, and not meant to be open to any old authority raking over its records.And, bearing in mind that SWIFT is head officed just outside Brussels in Belgium, the centre of and capital of Europe, having some gung-ho Yankees barking orders at them does not go down well.Nevertheless, in the spirit of cooperation, the European Commission, Parliament and politicians have been trying to work hard to come up with something that meets the needs of the American authorities whilst not compromising our very European principles.It won’t work.But we’ll try.You see, when it comes to privacy, Europe is from Mars and America is from Venus. Europe believes the individual has a basic human right to protect their privacy. America believes that the State is far more important than the individual, and so listening in to any conversation, no matter how private, is fine.This is all coming to a head as Members of the European Parliament are debating this topic this week and pushing through a revised agreement with the United States on Wednesday. This follows the block on the original deal in February, which was meant to allow a continuance of the access that came to light in 2006. That was blocked due to ‘insufficient data privacy safeguards’.The amended agreement now states that the USA can request European financial data relevant to a specific terrorist investigation, as long as they substantiate the need for the data.
The whole argument over data privacy is illustrated best by this discussion between Frank Gaffney, a lobbyist for US Security, and Baroness Sarah Ludford, MEP, on the BBC’s Radio 4 programme “The World This Weekend”, aired yesterday and presented by Shaun Ley.