Yesterday, the European Parliament passed a Resolution calling for the suspension of a counter-terrorism agreement with the U.S., following recent allegations that the U.S. has breached the privacy safeguards of the agreement, and in doing so, the privacy of millions of E.U.’s citizens.
The agreement in question is the Terrorist Financing Tracking Programme or TFTP, more commonly known as the ‘SWIFT’ deal, after the name of the international financial exchange database to which it pertains. Currently, the TFTP allows for the transfer of SWIFT bank data to the U.S. authorities, for the use in tracking and fighting terrorism and terrorist financing. But according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden and recently published by Brazilian broadcaster Globo, the NSA has been covertly drawing financial data on millions of private transactions from SWIFT, in breach of the agreement’s provisions.
Throughout the various hearings of the Parliament’s Civil Liberties (LIBE) committee’s inquiry into mass electronic surveillance into the NSA spying programs, MEPs have voiced concerns about the U.S. spying activities and their impact on E.U. citizens privacy. They have repeatedly denounced them as unacceptable, and called into question a number of data transfer agreements concluded between the US and the EU, including SWIFT, the Passenger Name Record Agreement (PNR) and the Safe Harbor Agreement.
In the third hearing of the LIBE Inquiry, many MEPs asked that the SWIFT agreement be immediately suspended if the allegations of the breach proved to be true. Yesterday, the Parliament acted, indicating their support for suspension.
The SWIFT agreement has long been the subject of controversy, particularly among civil society. Yesterday, Privacy International sent letters to the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office seeking more information regarding the SWIFT allegations. These were accompanied by letters to the NSA and the U.S. Treasury Department, inquiring into the possibilities of effective redress for E.U. citizens whose privacy has been more than likely breached.
Unfortunately, yesterday’s resolution is a non-binding tool. However, the vote sends a strong political message from the European Parliament to the United States and the European Commission: MEPs will not tolerate violations of the privacy of European citizens.
In a statement from Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, released shortly after the vote, the European Commission insisted that it had, “no indications that the TFTP Agreement has been violated,” and that it was “still waiting for additional written assurances that the Commission has requested from the US.” Malmström went on to say that until further clarifications are provided, “the provisions of the TFTP Agreement that clearly regulate the transfer of personal data, and that provide effective safeguards to protect the fundamental rights of Europeans, will remain in place.”
The Parliament Resolution reflects the changing European attitudes towards information sharing agreements with the U.S. in the aftermath of the NSA revelations. As German MEP Jan Albrecht said in a statement after the vote: “The E.U. cannot continue to remain silent in the face of these ongoing revelations: it gives the impression we are little more than a lap dog of the U.S. If we are to have a healthy relationship with the U.S., based on mutual respect and benefit, E.U. governments must not be afraid of defending core E.U. values when they are infringed.”