March 24, 2010, 2:10 PM — The European Commission began work on a new set of negotiations with the U.S. on the transfer of E.U. citizens' bank data for counterterrorism purposes Wednesday, after a previous agreement was vetoed by the European Parliament last month.
The agreement is needed because while European data protection laws prohibit the passing of personal data to the U.S., American authorities say the data has been a valuable tool with which to track the funding of terrorist acts.
The Parliament torpedoed the agreement partly because it felt that European civil liberties were being compromised, but also because it was excluded from the decision-making process.
As a result, SWIFT, the Belgian bank networking firm that transmits billions of financial transactions every day and lies at the center of the debate, is in legal limbo, with the U.S. demanding the data, while E.U. laws forbid it from continuing such cooperation.
SWIFT was approached by U.S. government authorities shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and ordered to share bank transfer details. It did so without alerting European data protection authorities. When the data sharing was revealed in press reports, it sparked a scandal dubbed the SWIFT affair.
"Terrorism remains among the main threats that E.U. security has to face and we need to put in place tools that are up to the task, allowing for effective international cooperation," said Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who is responsible for Home Affairs.
"The program we propose to sustain with this E.U.-U.S. agreement on the transfer of financial messaging data proved its effectiveness in the past, and I am confident that it will continue to do so," she added.
She said she will push for an agreement that provides "the highest possible level of protection for E.U. citizens' personal data, allowing them to have the right to administrative and judicial redress, ensuring greater monitoring thanks to a regular review process and making sure that requests for data must be approved by a judicial public authority."
Commissioner for civil rights Viviane Reding added her support for the new negotiating stance, which she said addresses the concerns raised by the European Parliament.
In addition to respecting E.U. citizens' rights to privacy, Reding said the future agreement would explicitly provide U.S. reciprocity. The agreement shot down by the Parliament made no demands on the U.S. to share bank transfer data belonging to U.S. citizens in order to assist European antiterrorism efforts.
"I believe that on this basis, the European Union can go with confidence in a new round of negotiations with our U.S. partners," Reding said.