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Common Information

Shortly after September 11, 2001, the United States began requesting additional financial information about persons of interest by subpoenaing records located at the SWIFT banking consortium. SWIFT, which routes trillions of dollars a day, faced an ethical dilemma: fight the subpoenas in order to protect member privacy and the group's reputation for the highest level of confidentiality, or, comply and provide information about thousands of financial communications in the hope that lives will be saved. SWIFT decided to comply in secret, but in late June 2006, four major U.S. newspapers disclosed SWIFT's compliance. This sparked a heated public debate over the ethics of SWIFT's decision to reveal ostensibly confidential financial communications.

Analyzing the situation in hindsight, three ethical justifications existed for not complying with the Treasury Department's requests. First, SWIFT needed to uphold its long-standing values of confidentiality, non-disclosure, and institutional trust. The second ethical reason against SWIFT's involvement came with inadequate government oversight as the Treasury Department failed to construct necessary safeguards to ensure the privacy of the data. Third, international law must be upheld and one could argue quite strongly that the government's use of data breached some parts of international law.

Although SWIFT executives undoubtedly considered the aforementioned reasons for rejecting the government's subpoena, three ethical justifications for complying existed. First, it could be argued that the program was legal because the United States government possesses the authority to subpoena records stored within its territory and SWIFT maintained many of its records in Virginia. Second, it is entirely possible that complying with the government's subpoena thwarted another catastrophic terrorist attack that would have cost lives and dollars. Third, cooperating with the government did not explicitly violate any SWIFT policies due to the presence of a valid subpoena. However, the extent of cooperation certainly surprised many financial institutions and sparked some outrage and debate within the financial community.

While SWIFT had compelling arguments both for agreeing and refusing to cooperate with the U.S. government program, even in hindsight, it is impossible to judge with certitude the wisdom and ethics of SWIFT's decision to cooperate as we still lack answers to important questions such as: what information did the government want? What promises did the government make about data confidentially? What, if any, potentially impending threats did the government present to justify its need for data?


Common Information Question: 2/7

Inferring from the passage, which of the following constituted an ethical justification for SWIFT complying with the government?


The U.S. government can subpoena information that pertains to its citizens


SWIFT executives believed another catastrophic attack was imminent


Providing data to the government based upon a valid subpoena did not explicitly violate SWIFT policy


Despite ostensibly poor oversight, senior Treasury Department officials assured SWIFT that data would be kept confidential


U.S. officials told SWIFT officials exactly why Treasury needed the information

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Option(C) is correct

The important quote from the passage is: "cooperating with the government did not explicitly violate any SWIFT policies due to the presence of a valid subpoena"

A. An ethical argument for SWIFT complying is that the data are located in Virginia. This does not mean (and it would be wildly improper to conclude) that all the data pertains to U.S. citizens. The article implies that SWIFT deals with the financial information of people in the international community. Further, the article does not explicitly say that the U.S. government wanted information about its citizens.

B. The passage states that we cannot answer the following question: "what, if any, potentially impending threats did the government present to justify its need for data?" Given the inability to answer this, there are no grounds to conclude that SWIFT executives believed another attack was imminent.

C. This answer closely restates the third reason given for complying. Since the article makes clear that the government presented a valid subpoena, the data the government sought resided in the U.S., and complying with such subpoenas did not violate SWIFT policy, this answer is correct.

D. The passage states the opposite, noting that one unanswered question was: "What promises did the government make about data confidentially?"

E. The passage never mentions that SWIFT received information about why data were being subpoenaed. In fact, we can infer that SWIFT likely did not based upon the fact that one remaining unanswered question was: "What, if any, potentially impending threats did the government present to justify its need for data?"

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