The European Union has approved the framework for talks that will give the US Treasury Department access to banking data processed over the international Swift interbank network.
The approval for opening negotiations with US authorities was buried in a 32-page document released by the Council of the European Union last week.
It follows a long-running controversy over the covert tapping of Swift messaging data by the US under subpoenas issued in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in New York in 2001.
The top-secret exercise provoked uproar among EU consumer bodies and politicians when the news was leaked in 2006. In June 2007, the Swift board approved a four-year EUR150 million systems re-architecture programme designed to allow intra-European data to be stored only in Europe, and thus out of the reach of US authorities.
Swift has welcomed the latest initiative by EU parliamentarians, which may yet apply to payments message data located in Europe.
"Swift has been asking the EU and US authorities to provide legal clarity and certainty regarding access by authorities to financial messaging data," says the Belgium-based co-operative in a statement. "It is also important to note that the authorities can only access limited sets of data stored in Swift Operating Centres and this applies to FIN traffic only. SwiftNet FileAct traffic, including Sepa data, is not stored and therefore is not retrievable."
The Commission has stated that the new agreement will include guarantees on the limits of access, on the use and retention of data, and on the sharing of the data.