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The SWIFT Affair

Johannes Köppel


Texte intégral

1The main research question of this thesis is the following: why did Swiss banks and Swiss authorities obediently accepted the dilution of banking privacy in the case of the SWIFT surveillance, when they are usually fierce advocates of banking secrecy?

2The author initially established three hypotheses:

  • Hypothesis 1 assumes that Switzerland has not opposed the SWIFT program, either publicly or behind the scenes. This implies that Swiss banks and authorities have silently accepted the erosion of banking privacy.

  • Hypothesis 2 implies that Swiss Banks and authorities were and are actively opposing the SWIFT program, but have done so in a discreet manner and behind closed doors. This would imply that the many changes undertaken by SWIFT are partly the result of Swiss pressure.

  • Hypothesis 3 implies that Switzerland has actively and openly acted to enhance the data protection of its citizen in the SWIFT affair.

3After a first stage of literary research, the author was able to exclude Hypothesis 3.

4Written, publicly available information on the SWIFT surveillance is scarce. The author estimates that no more than 100 documents contain original information on the SWIFT affair. The international aspect of the SWIFT affair (Chapter 1) is largely based on newspaper articles and on the report of the Belgian Privacy Commission. All subsequent documents, including the few academic works on the subject, quote the same newspaper sources. However, it is safe to assume that the newspaper account is accurate because neither the US government nor SWIFT denied the validity of information contained in the articles. The US administration even condemned the disclosure. All the sources mentioned in the bibliography are available in PDF-form for the reader’s discretion in the enclosed CD-ROM. (except books)

5With respect to the Swiss dimension of the SWIFT affair, the original documents are limited to a dozen. There was no written indication that any Swiss actor took a stance on privacy protection in regard to SWIFT surveillance.

6Given the scarcity of literary sources, the author’s main research technique was interviews with involved actors. In summer 2008, the author conducted 14 interviews. Only three people still agreed in May 2009 to be cited by name:

  • Dick Marty, Swiss Senator (Ständerat), one of the most active defendant of privacy rights in the Swiss parliament

  • Annetta Bundi, Journalist, politic and economic section, Tages-Anzeiger

  • Professor Hans Geiger, University of Zürich

7The following people initially agreed to be named in an academic publication. After the substantial media attention of last November, however, they revoked their initial agreement:

  • A high-ranking director of the Swiss National Bank;

  • A sales representative of SIC (Swiss Interbank Clearing);

  • A high-ranking member of SWIFT Switzerland;

  • A high-ranking official of the Swiss Department of Finance;

  • A former high-ranking director of one of the two major Swiss banks;

  • A high-ranking director of a Swiss private bank;

  • A former state prosecutor, responsible for legal assistance cases with foreign countries in tax fraud cases.

8Four more people granted the author interviews, but only under the condition of absolute anonymity.

9Most findings of this thesis stem from interviews. The findings subsequently allowed the author to exclude Hypothesis 2. All of the interview partners confirmed that Switzerland did not take any steps towards privacy protection in the SWIFT affair. However, the politically most explosive finding of this thesis (the true extent of SWIFT surveillance in Switzerland) was discovered in the first stage of literary research while comparing the payment systems of Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The following interviews then provided more insight on the extent of the SWIFT affair in Switzerland.


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