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Europe extends US antiterrorist data-sharing deal

But extension is only for nine months

Europe's Council of Ministers have extended a controversial programme that hands over information on international financial transactions to the US for antiterrorism purposes.

The approval comes just a day before the Lisbon Treaty comes into effect, making major changes to the European Union's governmental structure that could eventually impact the programme.

Under the extension, the US Treasury will be able to continue to request specific data from SWIFT, a cooperative of 8,300 banking organisations that has a proprietary communications platform used to exchange financial data, according to information published by the Council of Ministers.

Since 2001, the US Treasury Department has run the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP), which analyses financial transactions related to terrorism.

The US conducted the programme in secret until it was revealed in the media in 2006, igniting concerns over how the government was analysing data from Europe. A significant portion of SWIFT data was stored in the US.

That will soon change when SWIFT brings online a new operating centre in Switzerland. The US, however, still wants access to the data, which includes information on who is sending or receiving money, addresses, national ID numbers and other data.

The new agreement allows the US to continue to request data for nine more months until the European Commission can create a new mandate for the programme under the Lisbon Treaty by early next year.

"In the meantime, an interim agreement is needed to ensure there is no lapse in the TFTP coverage that would deprive the EU of important information related to terrorist attacks or investigations," the Council of Ministers said.

The US Department of Treasury has agreed to a host of rules regarding how the data is handled. Data can only be accessed for specific searches, and data mining is prohibited. Data must also be deleted after five years, which complies with EU regulations regarding the retention of data for antiterrorism purposes.

The US is also obliged to share leads it derives from the data with other countries. Between January and September, more than 1,450 leads were passed to European governments and 800 to non-European governments, according to the Council.

In the past, the TFTP data has been used for investigations including an inquiry into an al-Qaida plot to attack planes flying between the US and Europe. In the UK in September, three people were convicted in connection with that plot and received more than 30 years each in prison, the Council said.

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