How your PIN number was given to Uncle Sam

July 7, 2006

One year on from 7/7 and the subsequent anti-terror laws, Simon Davies reveals a fresh assault on our civil liberties

How about this for a blockbuster movie plot? A vast organisation that sits at the centre of the world's money supply makes a secret deal with the CIA to transfer millions of confidential financial records from its Brussels headquarters to an unknown location in the US. The files contain information on bank customers from across the world, including Britain.

Only a handful of people were aware of the deal. France, Spain, Germany and Italy would have brought the roof down had they known. But they didn't.

The secret arrangement continues for five years until a whistleblower spills the beans to a major US newspaper. Within two days of the story making the front page, the President condemns the publication while a congressman calls for the paper to be prosecuted for treason.

Enter the fray a small UK- based human rights organisation run by a few poorly funded academics. They lay complaints across the world claiming that the deal is illegal and that the privacy rights of millions of people have been breached. American politicians and media commentators respond by turning their fury on the group while hundreds of US citizens accuse the academics of murder and treachery. But within a week, the group's complaints spark official investigations worldwide.

How the story ends is not yet known. It broke in The New York Times last week. The paper alleged that Swift, a banking consortium acting as the hub for nearly all international monetary transactions, had been secretly breaching the confidentiality of its customers. The consortium insisted it had always acted within the law, only limited data were involved and the principle of confidentiality had been preserved. I believe otherwise.

After 9/11, the CIA and the US Treasury had attempted to gain access to the world's flow of financial transactions. It appears that because of privacy restrictions in the US, as well as concern expressed by other countries about the threat of economic espionage, the Americans made private arrangements with the consortium to gain access to millions of records offshore.

The British human rights group Privacy International, of which I am director, then complained to authorities in 32 countries, calling for formal investigations and that the programme be suspended pending legal review. Canada and Spain have already announced inquiries. Within the next week the other privacy regulators of Europe will announce their decisions.

The damage is clear. The security of the world's banking system is being seriously questioned. US-European Union relations have slipped another notch, as have relations between the White House and the US press.

This mess has transpired not because rights advocates and lawyers oppose counter-terrorism per se , but because we, like many others, believe that the rule of law has been grievously abandoned, as it is all too often. The same week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the military trials at Guantanamo Bay were unlawful. Two days later, the High Court in London ruled that the UK Government's "control orders", a key plank of its anti-terrorism provisions, were also unlawful.

As Britain ponders the first anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London, we should consider this vexing question. Should the rights and safeguards established over centuries be dismantled? Should we permit our Government, security services and police to act however they please, regardless of consequence?

There are two popular perceptions that arise from the burgeoning power of the state. One is that in this "age of terrorism" we should all work unquestioningly in partnership with authority, each arm of which is simply doing its best to improve our security. The other is that police and security agencies are acting like hotdog-sellers scrambling for the after-theatre crowd to gain new powers and territory.

Both perceptions are correct, along with many other unsavoury elements in between. When terrorism is cited as the justification for all encroachments on liberty, we should be on our guard. Future generations will be forced to deal with the surveillance society that we permitted.

Rights and freedoms were not concocted in a vacuum. They are a living organism that reflects the needs and expectations of real people. They temper the zeal of authoritarianism and prompt powerful interests to consider the consequences of their actions. We need strong security. But we also need to feel secure in the knowledge that these new powers are being exercised with wise judgment, honesty and with integrity.

Anything less will undermine the values we strive to preserve. But something more important is at stake. Without such a benchmark, our security services may degenerate into a Lord of the Flies environment, where decency, accountability and respect for law give way to a belief that the ends can justify the means at any cost and with any consequence.

Simon Davies is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and director of Privacy International.

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