US hopes for Europe bank data dashed

Members of the European parliament have voted down a deal to transfer financial records belonging to EU citizens to America. For once the battle between security and privacy ended in favour of the latter.

The data was to be accessed in the name of fighting terrorism, but MEPs have given a bloody nose to an increasingly information-hungry US.

What turned the tables was an impassioned plea by Jeanine Hennes-Plasschaert – the author of the motion to put down this deal. Her main idea was: imagine if the tables were turned and if it was the US government going to US congress asking them to allow the transfer of bank details of US citizens to a foreign country – imagine what US congress would say.

It was all about SWIFT, a network of information which contains global bank account details and which handles around 80% of the world’s electronic transfers. It also struck a deal with the US government.

Since 9/11, America has been trying to harness personal data on both sides of the Atlantic. Security services have sought methods of tracking phone and internet usage, and following financial transfers. SWIFT was the perfect partner.

Although the scheme was claimed to be aimed at terrorists, many believe this blanket approach threatens the civil liberties of ordinary people.

“We feel that the privacy safeguards in it are too weak and it would not give the kind of civil liberties guarantees that European citizens would expect. We're really also fighting for the future of data sharing and data protection in international transfers of personal information,” Member of European Parliament Sarah Ludford says.

MEPs stood firm in defending their fellow-Europeans’ liberties, voting against the deal by an overwhelming majority.

Under the terms of the Lisbon treaty, which came into force last December, EU parliamentarians now have a say in cross-border agreements. The official deal on SWIFT was signed the very day before the Lisbon Treaty started – a move that outraged the MEPs, who viewed the move as a deliberate attempt to by-pass scrutiny.

As of now it is illegal to transfer EU citizens’ bank data to the US – that is the verdict of Thursday’s vote. But MEP Gerard Batten does not think this will be the end of the SWIFT deal.

“Legality doesn't mean a lot in this parliament and in the European Union, I have to tell you. If the European Council and the European Union want to do something, they don't worry about the legality, they just do it. And it remains to be seen. I think there's going to be some interesting in-fighting from over the next year,” Batten says.

Even if the SWIFT deal does not rear its head again, this is certainly not the last we will be hearing from the European parliament. There are eight agreements of a similar nature that were signed before the Lisbon Treaty came into force. They will all now be subject to examination by MEPs. One of them concerns the transfer of air passenger data to the US – something parliament is unlikely to take sitting down.