I’ve been thinking a lot about SWIFT lately. Partly that’s because of the renewed discussion on how some big banks relied on cash from drug cartels to survive as the housing bubble began to pop. Partly that’s because of advance publicity for Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands and coverage of corporate tax dodging. And partly it’s because of this piece, declaring privacy dead without realizing that privacy is only dead for the little people.
You see, I’m increasingly convinced SWIFT will one day be the ultimate battleground over whether the US government can just suck up and analyze all the data it wants.
As a reminder, SWIFT (or Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunicatiom) is the online messaging system the world’s finance industry uses to transfer funds internationally. It records the flows of trillions of dollars each day.
It first got big news coverage when Eric Lichtblau and James Risen reported on how our government uses it to track terrorist financing. But of course, the database tracks all sorts of financial flows, not just terrorist financing. Thus, it could be used to track drug finance, tax cheats (both corporate and individual), and the looting of various nations’ riches by their elites.
Swift, a former government official said, was “the mother lode, the Rosetta stone” for financial data.
Indeed, according to Lichtblau’s Bush’s Law, the database appears to track even more information than tax havens would ever collect.
[T]he routing instructions that the company used to move money around the globe often included much more detailed data than any other system: passport information, phone numbers and local addresses, critical identifying information about the senders and the recipients, the purpose of the transaction, and more. (243)
In a world where–as described in Shaxson’s book–our financial system largely runs on the strategic shifting of money behind the cloak of corporate anonymity or secret back accounts, SWIFT appears to be the one place where there is full transparency.
The US and UK in particular, according to Shaxson, have used the secrecy that corporate laws and associated tax havens can offer to sustain their hegemonic position in the world. As we saw, giving a bunch of drug cartels means to launder their money allowed Wachovia to survive for years after the time when it should have collapsed; the US and UK are just larger versions of the same gimmick.
Which is why, I’ve become convinced, the response to NYT’s reporting on SWIFT was (and remains) so much more intense than even their exposure of the illegal wiretap program. The shell game of international finance only works so long as we sustain the myth that money moves in secret; but of course there has to be one place, like SWIFT, where those secrets are revealed. And so, in revealing that the US was using SWIFT to track terror financing, the NYT was also making it clear that there is such a window of transparency on a purportedly secret system.
And the CIA has, alone among the world’s intelligence services, access to it.