SWIFT, the NSA and Glenn Greenwald

The most recent Greenwald document release – of a Powerpoint suggesting strongly that the NSA has a backdoor into the SWIFT financial messaging system – may have some interesting political consequences. Abe Newman at Georgetown and I are in the throes of writing a book about the internationalization of homeland security. Roughly, our story is that domestic officials in both the EU and US, who prefer to prioritize homeland security over privacy and civil rights, have been able to use cross national networks and forums to push their agenda, weakening the previously existing privacy regime in the European Union. And SWIFT is a big part of this story. The US began secretly requiring SWIFT (which is based in Belgium) to share its data after September 11. When EU decision makers became aware of this (thanks to a New York Times story which the Bush administration tried to get spiked), there was political uproar, resulting in the negotiation of a framework under which the US agreed to impose limits and safeguards in return for continued access. If you don’t mind wading through some political science jargon, you can get the basic story from the relevant bits of this paper.

This is interesting for two reasons. First – the EU thought the US had signed onto a binding deal on access to SWIFT data. If, as appears likely at this point, the US was letting the EU see what it did when it came in through the front door, while retaining a backdoor key for the odd bit of opportunistic burglary, it will at the least be highly embarrassing. Second – there are people in the EU who never liked this deal in the first place, and have been looking for reasons to get rid of it. The allegations of the last couple of months have helped their case considerably – this, if it bears out, will do more than that. If the US has demonstrably lied to the EU about the circumstances under which it has been getting access to SWIFT, it will be hard for the EU to continue with the arrangement (and, possibly, a similar arrangement about sharing airline passenger data) without badly losing face. Even though the people who dominate the agenda (officials in the Council and European Commission) probably don’t want to abandon the agreement, even after this, they’ll have a bloody hard time explaining why they want to keep it. The EU-US homeland security relationship, which had been looking pretty cosy a few months ago, is now likely to be anything but.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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