EU agrees new bank data deal with US

European Voice (Link) - Simon Taylor (November 30, 2009)

EU governments adopt stop-gap agreement to keep SWIFT data transfers operating.

EU interior ministers have struck an interim deal to give the US access to banking data handled by SWIFT, a bank-owned network that processes international communications among banks.

During their meeting in Brussels today, ministers agreed an interim deal for nine months. Germany and Austria had reservations about the level of data protection but abstained in the meeting. The EU needs unanimity to agree international treaties, such as the SWIFT agreement, but abstentions do not count as votes against.

The EU needed to strike a new deal with the US because SWIFT is transferring much of its data business to servers located in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Without an agreement, the US would no longer be able to consult the data. Supporters of the deal say that the data examined by US law enforcement agencies has been used to prevent terrorist attacks in the EU.

Today's decision will, however, annoy members of the European Parliament. Last Thursday, leaders of all the Parliament's political groups asked the Council of Ministers, the forum for EU governments, not to reach an interim agreement.

Under the Lisbon treaty rules, which comes into force on 1 December, MEPs will gain the right to formulate and approve this type of agreement together with the Council of Ministers.

The Council had said it would negotiate a long-term agreement with the Parliament under the Lisbon rules and would take full account of the Parliament's concerns. But it also said that an interim agreement was needed to prevent the flow of SWIFT data to the US authorities being cut off.

Stuart Levey, the under-secretary of the US Treasury, welcomed the Council's decision.

Referring to the terrorist finance tracking programme (TFTP) which examined bank transfer data, Levey said that in the eight years since the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, the programme had �provided invaluable leads in many major terrorism investigations, contributing greatly to our ability to thwart deadly terrorist attacks around the world�.

Levey said that the TFTP was subject to the highest standards of data privacy protection, with �scrupulously designed and multilayered controls and safeguards that are subject to numerous, complementary forms of independent oversight�.

He noted that the European Commission had concluded these controls and safeguards were �significant and effective� and ensured respect for the protection of personal data.