European Panel Leery Of Sharing Bank Data

August 24, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON --Amid growing concern that handovers of confidential banking data to U.S. counterterrorism investigators may violate European privacy laws, officials from around the Continent met yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, to consider legal options for probing the data transfers.

Representatives from European privacy commissions considered complaints that sharing data on thousands of international wire transfers with U.S. law enforcement to help track terrorist financing could open the door to inappropriate uses of information that is protected by European laws.

Opponents of the data-sharing have argued that the practice not only violates the confidentiality of bank customers, but also might theoretically enable other uses of the data, including "large-scale forms of economic and industrial espionage."

The panel meeting in Brussels has not announced a strategy. However, with many governments opening independent investigations into the transfers, analysts said it is likely that the commissioners would move in the next few weeks to demand details about the information being handed over, with the goal of developing a coordinated response.

"Our sense is that they are all frustrated," said Simon Davies, head of Privacy International, a nongovernmental organization. Davies' group has filed complaints with governments around the world that have been involved in the sharing of data through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, a Belgium-based company that operates a messaging system used by 7,800 financial institutions in 200 countries.

The Information Commission in the United Kingdom is one of many that has opened an independent inquiry, in conjunction with the Europe-wide inquiry being coordinated by Belgium, to determine whether any British laws were broken.

"There may or may not have been a breach, but that's really what the intention is now, to find out," said James Ford, a spokesman for the commission in London. "We're taking a coordinated and consistent approach with our European counterparts to investigate this."

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