Friday, June 23, 2006

US administration obtained international financial records in fight against terror

The Bush administration obtained records about financial transactions from a Belgian cooperative that routes money between international banks in an attempt to fight terrorists, the New York Times writes today in a big story. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication or SWIFT is described by the NYT as "the nerve center of the global banking industry" as it passes $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages and stock exchanges.

After 9/11, the CIA subpoenaed SWIFT and initially obtained their whole database of transactions. After 2003, SWIFT managed to insist on there being SWIFT representatives present when records were analysed and to block searches they considered inappropriate.

While safeguards seem to have been imposed to protect against unwarranted searches of Americans' records, no such protection seems to exist for citizens of other countries. It also seems that American laws restricting government access to private financial records do not apply because SWIFT is considered a messenger service and not a bank or financial institution.

This case links to the Bush administration's other high tech snooping operation that came to light some six weeks ago, namely the NSA building up a giant database of phone calls in America (see the blog entry here). Whether any of these massive data mining operations have yielded valuable information against terrorists that could not have otherwise been obtained we do not know at this point. What we know for certain is that millions and millions of records containing private information have been obtained by government officials, and that the further uses these records will be put to are unknown. Will they get lost, like those of the Army veterans and currently serving personnel?

Update: In the meantime, SWIFT has published a statement on its compliance policy on its website, detailing the process from its point of view and emphasizing that its role was not voluntary. And the NYT reports that Vice-President Cheney has assailed the press for publishing the story, implying that this endangered US national security (a point strongly refuted by the NYT's executive editor). Cheney also described the administration's actions as "good, solid, sound programs" that are "absolutely essential in terms of protecting us against attacks". Privacy advocates like Privacy International's Simon Davies have complained that "our data has been effectively hijacked by the U.S. under cover of secret agreements and entirely undisclosed terms."

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