July 03, 2014, 8:39 AM — The European Union's top court has ordered EU institutions to lift the veil on negotiations over sending EU citizens' banking data to U.S. authorities in an effort to identify and combat terrorism.
The U.S. set up the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and began ordering Belgian company SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) to hand over information about transactions sent through its U.S. operating center.
Following media reports in 2006 about the data handover, EU and US officials sought to bring the program within the EU-US Safe Harbor agreement on data protection, to ensure that citizens' data was not misused.
Those efforts resulted in an agreement between the EU and the U.S. Treasury Department that became effective on Aug. 1, 2010 -- but the negotiations leading to it were shrouded in secrecy.
In July 2009, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament, Sophie in 't Veld, requested access to a legal opinion on the deal prepared for one of the EU's decision-making bodies, the Council of the EU, where ministers from each member state meet to adopt laws and coordinate policies.
The document contained the opinion of the Council's legal service on a recommendation by the European Commission that the EU open negotiations with the U.S. on the exchange of data.
The Council refused access to the whole document, prompting In't Veld to file suit in December that year to compel the document's release. She was partly successful, but the Council appealed.
However, that doesn't mean that In 't Veld will now get access to the document: The Council has to reconsider the request.
Despite the prospect of another wait, In 't Veld called the ruling "a great victory."
"The Court clearly states that transparency is a prerequisite for a truly democratic Europe. The European Union must develop from a Europe of diplomats, discretion and confidentiality to a Europe of citizens, administrative transparency and trust," In 't Veld said.
To seek information on suspected terrorists, the U.S. Treasury Department issues SWIFT with subpoenas regarding the messages it carries about financial transactions.
Under the agreement, the EU's law enforcement agency Europol assesses whether data requested in any given case is necessary for the fight against terrorism and its financing, and checks whether the request is sufficiently narrow to limit the amount of data requested. If not, no data is transferred.