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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: 7/7

The author most likely used the word "ostensibly" near the end of the first paragraph to emphasize that:


The ethical decision facing SWIFT seemed complex


The U.S. government saw no problems in the request it made


Four major U.S. newspapers thought on the surface that the decision to publish the story was simple


Users of SWIFT believed their financial data and communications were private


Members of the public reacted with anger upon learning of SWIFT’s cooperation

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Option(D) is correct

Ostensibly means apparently or seemingly.

In order to see more clearly how the author uses a specific word, examine the context. In this case, the context of the word "ostensibly" is that members of the public and financial community expressed outrage upon learning that SWIFT turned over to the government data they believed to be private (hence the word "ostensibly"--the data were apparently or seemingly private). This fact that the data were supposedly private plays an important role in explaining the public outrage and debate.

Context: "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."

A. Although this is true, it is not until later in the passage that it becomes clear that the ethical choice facing SWIFT seemed complex.

B. The passage never addresses whether members of the government felt the request for data was problematic, legally questionable, or a breach of trust.

C. The immediate context deals with public reaction. Further, the passage never addresses what the newspapers thought about publishing the controversial story.

D. The author's word choice emphasized the feeling of shock over data that were supposed to be private being turned over. Ostensibly helps amplify why members of the public and financial community experienced surprise. 

E. Although this is true, it has no relation to the meaning and use of "ostensibly".

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