The Corner

Damage Is Done

Rights unit challenges U.S. over bank data By Dan Bilefsky International Herald Tribune WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28, 2006  BRUSSELS A human rights group in London said Tuesday that it had lodged complaints in 32 countries against a banking consortium in Brussels, contending that it violated European and Asian data protection rules by providing the United States with confidential information about international money transfers.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said the organization filed the complaints with the data protection authorities with the aim of halting what it called “illegal transfers” of private information to the United States by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift.

The complaints were filed in the 25 EU countries, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Lichtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

“Swift appears to have violated data protection rules in Europe,” Davies said, “by making these transfers without the consent of the individuals involved and without the approval of European judicial or administrative authorities. The scale of the operation, involving millions of records, places this disclosure in the realm of a fishing exercise rather than a legally authorized investigation.”

The Bush administration has defended the program as a crucial element in its campaign against terrorism, but Europe and the United States are increasingly at odds over how to protect civil liberties at the same time.

On Tuesday, the European Parliament’s center-right European People’s Party, its largest and most influential grouping, called for the EU to open an inquiry into the legality of Swift’s actions. Thomas Bickl, a spokesman for the party, said it was concerned that the transfers had been made as part of a covert and untransparent operation.

Separately, the Council of Europe, the human rights watchdog in Strasbourg, renewed its criticism Tuesday of the United States’ alleged abductions of terrorism suspects in Europe and demanded that Washington apologize and compensate the victims.

Davies said Swift had received broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the Treasury Department, which gave its actions a legal basis in the United States. But he said the subpoenas took the form of letters that were issued without judicial consent or due process in the European Union, where only the data protection authorities or the courts have the power to consent to such transfers.

“These transfers could be made on the grounds of national security, but Swift did not seek approval from European authorities to do this,” he said. “It was willing to overlook European civil liberties rules in order to satisfy U.S. objectives, and this is the most recent in a long list of attempts by the U.S. to invade the privacy of Europeans.”

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