Lawmakers fear US economic espionage

Lawmakers fear US economic espionage


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Aresolution by EU lawmakers last Thursday warned that alleged US efforts to obtain information on global bank transfers linked to counter-terror actions could amount to economic espionage.

The resolution said that the data managed by the Belgian financial cooperative Swift made it “possible to detect information on the economic activities of the individuals and countries concerned.” This “could give rise to large-scale forms of economic and industrial espionage,” warned the resolution, which was adopted at a meeting in Strasbourg, France.

Deputies called on the European Central Bank (ECB) to clarify its role in the case and urged the European Data Protection Supervisor to verify whether the bank has failed to make the alleged violation of data protection public. Swift allegedly told its main supervisor Belgium’s national bank as well as the ECB and several European central banks about the programme. The Swift case causes “a climate of deteriorating respect for privacy and data protection,” Euro MPs warned.

They also deplored any secret operations on EU territory which would affect the privacy of European citizens. It was also reported the Belgian National Bank and the country’s Finance Minister, Didier Reynders, knew of the arrangement. EU lawmakers called for common rules to monitor the transfer of personal data worldwide, which they said is currently carried out without informing national governments or the people involved. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said earlier that it had no legal powers to investigate the allegations against the US, arguing that such inquiries could only be done by national governments. Belgium has ordered its justice ministry and data protection supervisor to investigate whether any national or EU laws were broken when Swift agreed to hand over data to the US.

The financial system routes about six trillion dollars daily between some 8,000 banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions worldwide. The European Parliament also last week adopted a resolution expressing its serious concern on the “climate of deteriorating respect for privacy and data protection” it said was being created by US security measures to fight terrorism. The case has created unrest in Europe and made MEPs demand the European Central Bank (ECB) to explain if it was aware of the secret agreement between Swift and the American government. According to MEPs, the fact that the US government gained access to financial personal data of European citizens by subpoenaing Swift breaks EU law and poses a real danger: “Data managed by SWIFT makes it possible to detect not only transfers linked to illegal activities, but also information on the economic activities of the individuals (…), and this could give rise to large-scale forms of economic and industrial espionage,” they said. Parliament stressed in its resolution that all transfers of personal data to third countries are subject to data protection legislation at national and European level. Data transfers must be authorised by a judicial authority and any derogation from this rule must be “proportional and founded on a law or international agreement.” Of special concern is the fact that MEPs have never been informed before of these Swift transfers, even if the EU is currently negotiating a new regulation on the kind of information which must accompany the transfer of funds. Therefore they demanded EU institutions and the ECB “to explain fully the extent to which they were aware of the secret agreement between SWIFT and the US government.” For that purpose, MEPs proposed the organisation as soon as possible of a joint hearing with the ECB and other institutions “in order to uncover what information they might have known about.”

MEPs also demanded the European Data Protection Supervisor to verify whether, in according with existing EU rules, the ECB was “obliged to react” to the possible violation of data protection which had come to its knowledge. The Parliament said it “strongly disapproves of any secret operations on EU territory that affect the privacy of EU citizens.” Speaking on behalf of the EU Presidency, Paula Lehtomaki, the Finnish Minister for European Affairs, said “unfortunately, the Council is unable to confirm reports in the media about exchanges of information between SWIFT and the American authorities.” Justice, Freedom and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said, “it seems that there was a transfer of financial information between private companies from the EU to the US,” and pushed for further scrutiny of records and how it may have affected the rights of EU citizens.

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