Swiss banks broke their nation's laws by providing banking information to US counterterrorism officials, Switzerland's top data-protection official said on Friday.
The banks, known for safeguarding privacy, should have informed customers using the SWIFT money-transfer service that their data could be passed on to third parties, the Swiss official, Hanspeter Thuer, said in Bern.
Just the possibility of the data being leaked should have been grounds enough to warn customers, he said. His statement was at odds with the views of the Swiss finance minister, Hans-Rudolf Merz, who said last month that giving the CIA such access did not infringe on the country's banking secrecy rules.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, SWIFT provided records on millions of international banking transactions to the US government in response to subpoenas from the Treasury Department. SWIFT -- formally the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication -- operates a secure electronic-messaging service used by some 7,800 financial institutions to make international money transfers worth US$6 trillion a day.
Analysts at the CIA have used the records to conduct tens of thousands of individual examinations of banking records in search of evidence and patterns of possible terrorist financing. A prime focus of the effort has been on international transactions coming into and out of the US.
SWIFT and US officials have defended the operation as a vital and lawful effort to cut off money to terrorists, but it has come under sharp international criticism.
Thuer said the issue was whether information could be given to countries whose data protection laws are less stringent than Switzerland's.
He urged that a solution be negotiated by which US laws and European data-protection rules are standardized.
Some European officials are pushing for the appointment of an independent, European-based auditor to guard against abuses, in place of a Washington consulting firm that now has that role.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, which separately has lashed out at SWIFT. EU legislators criticized the consortium in early October.
Around the same time, one of SWIFT'S supervisors, the European Central Bank, acknowledged that it had known for years that the consortium was giving confidential banking records to US authorities.
Earlier, the privacy commission for Belgium, where SWIFT is based, accused the consortium of flouting European rules.