NSA contractor Edward Snowden
People use masks with pictures of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. (Reuters)

The European Union has threatened to suspend or even terminate the crucial EU-US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme, after allegations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) spied on bank-to-bank messaging via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift) network.

More than 10,000 banking organisations, securities institutions, and corporate customers in 212 countries use Swift every day to exchange millions of standardised financial messages. 

The NSA has been widely criticised over its surveillance programme that spied on politicians, bureaucrats, and businesses across the world via phone calls and internet activity. 

The revelations about the NSA surveillance came from top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the agency, who is currently in exile in Russia.

Tapping Into Banks Via Swift

While the NSA and the US government defended them, saying the programmes are aimed at preventing terrorism, the questions of civil rights and privacy involved in the agency's actions are still troubling the US.

Following allegations that the NSA tapped into personal financial data from Swift's international bank-transfer database, the EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström asked the US for clarifications.

"I am not satisfied with the answers I got so far," Malmström told the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) at a meeting of the Civil Liberties Committee, discussing the US and EU countries' surveillance schemes.

"We need more information and clarity," she daid.

The Swift network enables financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a "secure, standardised and reliable environment".

In 2010, the EU and US agreed a data sharing deal, allowing US agencies limited access to bank data transferred through the Swift network. The agreement was made in support of the US Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) that was formulated after the September 11 attacks.

"If media reports are true this, constitutes a breach of the agreement and a breach of the agreement can lead to suspension," said Malmström.

MEPs on the Civil Liberties Committee called for scrapping of the agreement given the breach by the NSA, tapping into the Swift database to access financial dealings data of Europeans.

Denials

Meanwhile, EU officials and a Swift executive denied the allegations and said they have no evidence to prove that the NSA illegally accessed European data.

"We simply have no evidence," Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol, the EU's police agency, told the committee.

Swift had "no reason to believe that there has been an unauthorised access to our data," according to the firm's top lawyer, Blanche Petre.