US authorities had free rein over world's bank data
Article 29 working party tackle SWIFT
The way in which international business operates its IT infrastructure has given the US government unprecedented power to view international financial records.
Swift has an unspecified number of data centres around the world, each one storing every one of the 11 million transactions it handles on a daily basis, being mirrors of one another as backup in the event of one of them failing. This means that a US subpoena of records kept in Swift's US data centre will gain access to financial transactions made in over 200 countries.
In testimony before the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on 11 July, Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury said no-one would have known about this programme (called the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme) if details had not been leaked to the US papers.
He said secrecy was one of the programme's strengths. But Republicans have complained that even Congress was not aware of what was going on.
The Washington Post likened the programme to the National Security Agency's mass surveillance of international telephone and Internet communications without a warrant, which was recently found by a US judge to be illegal. It said the US government was also building "unprecedented" government databases of private transactions of people unrelated to terrorism.
Levey also said Swift did not supply it with individual bank account information.
This is not strictly true. According to Swift, each of the "messages" on its database is a record of a financial transaction. When the Treasury investigators get inside the encrypted electronic envelopes they get to see the individual bank account details of the payer and the beneficiary, including the amount being transferred.®