EU poses conditions on US access to bank account info

17th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

The Europeans and Americans are involved in tricky negotiations on the use of information provided via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication system, which deals with trillions of dollars in global transactions daily involving 8,000 banks.

Strasbourg -- Washington must give firm guarantees if it wants to keep receiving personal data on Europeans from the interbank transfer service as part of the fight against terrorism, the EU warned Wednesday.

"If we don't get real assurances concerning the protection of (personal) data there won't be a deal," said EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot in comments backed by the European Union's Swedish presidency.

The Europeans and Americans are involved in tricky negotiations on the use of information provided via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system, which deals with trillions of dollars in global transactions daily involving 8,000 banks.

In 2006, Belgium's commission on privacy protection discovered that SWIFT had violated Belgian privacy rules, transferring bank records to the US authorities for use in anti-terrorism investigations.

SWIFT admitted it had provided US authorities with a "limited" amount of data in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001 for the purpose of fighting extremists.

From July 2007, SWIFT undertook to abide by "safe harbour" principles, supplying information from EU countries but using data security standards equivalent to those in Europe.

The information, primarily account numbers involved in a transaction, can now only be used by the US treasury in anti-terror investigations and will be erased after five years unless used.

Next month SWIFT plans to relocate its non-US database and servers from the United States to the Netherlands, in another move to appease the EU.

In July the EU Commission was tasked with drawing up a new accord for the continuation of personal data transfer.

Without an EU deal, the US would have to rely on the goodwill of individual member states in order to keep the data flow going.

Hence the need for at least a temporary deal with Europe, which would provide time from broader negotiations on the protection of personal data, Barrot told the European parliament in Strasbourg.

"The duration of this interim accord can't exceed 12 months," assured Swedish Justice Minister Beatrice Ask.

Barrot stressed the need to continue cooperation on a scheme aimed at "preventing attacks in the United States and Europe," seeking to assuage critics in the parliament and beyond who believe personal rights to privacy are being compromised.

The two main groups in the parliament, the centre-right European People's Party and the Socialists insisted on the need to protect the rights of European citizens.

The Socialists also denounced the difficulties encountered by Europeans seeking to complain through the US justice system, a point which Barrot said would be addressed in the negotiations with Washington, promising "full reciprocity."

"The agreement (with the US) will include all the guarantees necessary to protect personal data,” the EU commissioner said. “That is an absolute condition. We have to lead the fight against terrorism with the United States while respecting European principles and values.”

AFP/Expatica

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