Europe needs access to SWIFT payments data to combat militants - France

PARIS (Reuters) - European authorities need to be able to tap into data from the SWIFT bank payments network under a push to clamp down on the financing of militant groups, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said on Monday.

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Sapin said SWIFT - the world’s biggest electronic payments system - had two computer servers, one in Europe and the other in the United States. However, Europe currently relied on U.S. authorities to collect and analyze the vast amounts of data flowing through the system to detect security issues.

“We Europeans don’t have the capacity to exploit our own data. I don’t think this can carry on this way,” Sapin told a news conference. “Since we do not have the means to analyze the data located in Europe, we transfer all of this data to the Americans, who have the capacity to analyze it.”

Efforts to curb financing of militant groups have intensified since the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 by Islamic State-backed gunmen and bombers.

France will raise the SWIFT data issue at a meeting of euro zone finance ministers in Brussels on Monday, and has asked for questions related to the financing of terrorism to be discussed at the next meeting of finance ministers from all 28 European Union countries.

Belgian-based SWIFT, or Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, operates services transmitting letters of credit, payments and securities transactions among 9,700 banks in 209 countries.

SWIFT says on its website that it is subject to binding requests to provide the U.S. Treasury with data from its European server “for the purpose of the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of terrorism or terrorist financing”.

Sapin said that while the United States was a committed ally, “they can also be interested in certain data not only because they are our allies, but also because they are our competitors”.

He did not elaborate. However, the Belgian and Dutch data privacy authorities investigated the SWIFT network’s security following revelations by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden of mass surveillance by the U.S. government. They concluded in May 2014 that there were no indications of unlawful access to SWIFT by third parties.

Sapin was presenting a series of measures aimed at curbing the financing of militant activities which largely complement announcements made earlier this year after Islamist militants attacked the Paris offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January.

The French anti-fraud and money laundering agency Tracfin would soon have access to “S” (State Security) files, he said. These are compiled by the police and intelligence agencies on people suspected of being a threat to national security.

Prepaid payment cards, which the head of Tracfin said were used in the Paris attacks, will also be more tightly regulated. Decrees will be issued on this before the end of this year.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Writing by Leigh Thomas; editing by David Stamp; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Stamp