Belgians Confirm Illegality Of SWIFT Surveillance Program, Setting Up Showdown Over U.S. Privacy Laws

September 28, 2006 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – Belgium’s announcement today that the U.S. government’s secret surveillance of international bank transfers violates their national privacy law sets up a showdown between American and European privacy laws and highlights the need for the United States to end its ill-considered spying program and bring its privacy laws up to international standards, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

“This important development confirms what we’ve been saying: the SWIFT program is a violation of European privacy laws,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “It also makes clear that in a world where our allies have all incorporated basic privacy principles into their laws, the United States cannot expect to run roughshod over basic privacy standards without opposition.”

The report was prepared by the Privacy Commission of Belgium (the country in which SWIFT is headquartered) and presented at a press conference today by the Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt. The commission observed that SWIFT was caught between divergent American and European laws on privacy, but found that SWIFT “should have complied with its obligations under the Belgian privacy law,” and “should have been aware that the fundamental principles of European law were to be observed.” It cited fundamental privacy principles that had been violated: proportionality in the collection of data, limited retention periods, transparency, independent oversight, and adequate protections for data.

Verhofstadt called for talks between the United States and the European Union to attempt to bridge the gap on what kinds of privacy protections are needed.

“It is sad to once again see the America, with all of its proud traditions, standing on the wrong side when it comes to basic principles of fairness and privacy that are recognized around the world,” said Steinhardt. “And it is sad that we have to rely on the Europeans to get to the bottom of this since we in the United States have no independent privacy commissioner that can investigate.”

Earlier this week, the ACLU and Privacy International released a research memorandum it prepared for European privacy commissioners demonstrating that the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, which the government enlisted to audit the SWIFT program, had such extensive ties to government security agencies that its objectivity in that role was called into significant question.

The Belgian report is online at:

An English translation of the report summary is at:

The ACLU-PI memo on Booz Allen can be found at:

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