Modern form of bank robbery?
Germany has signalled it is ready to pay a thief who stole secret bank data in Switzerland in order to collect a small fortune in taxes and fines for tax evasion. According to media reports, the data may relate to money held by 1,500 Germans dodging taxes by hiding their money in Swiss bank accounts.
But is it right for a state based on the rule of law to pay for stolen data? Is it a question of the ends justifying the means (exitus acta probat)? Or is it simply a modern form of bank robbery, like a Swiss lawmaker called it so colorfully on Tuesday?
It’s a question that has caused a stir on both sides of the German-Swiss border. Do two wrongs make a right? Can stolen data be used as evidence in court? Or is acceptable for a state to reward a thief in the pursuit of the greater good of fighting tax evasion — seen as a more serious crime?
Germans understandably have a deep suspicion about invasion of privacy after their ominous past experience with the Nazi’s Gestapo and the East German Stasi security police. And Switzerland has historical hang ups about about Germany. There have been spirited debates on the moral pros and cons of the latest immoral offer for days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble have said they’re in principle willing to pay an informant a reported 2.5 million euros for the bank data from Switzerland that could lead to more than 100 million euros for state coffers. The issue has has dominated newspaper headlines and TV bulletins in both countries for days.
That’s all good news for Germany’s fiscal health as it has prompted a wave of Germans with money stashed in Switzerland to come clean, as the Berlin newspaper TAZ noted today: “The mere talk about the Swiss tax data will be lucrative for the state. Those who are nervous and turn themselves in can still avoid criminal punishment but will nevertheless have to pay the taxes they’ve been evading.”
Reuters correspondent Albert Schmieder in Zurich talked to a banker today who told him: “The phones are ringing off the hook. A lot of Germans are quaking in their boots.” An opinion poll published in Germany on Tuesday found 57 percent of the public in favour of paying the thief to go after the tax dodgers. Spiegel online noted that newspaper editorials in Germany are saying “the days of the numbered Swiss account are, well, numbered.”
But the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper warned that the government’s readiness to deal with a criminal for stolen bank data in this case as well as a similar case involving Liechtenstein two years years ago had created a new market for “Steuerdatenhandel” — trading tax data. The Boersen-Zeitung business daily called it a seedy business and compared it to the narcotics trade. “Der Staat als Dealer” (The state as a dealer) it wrote. “The end does not justify the means in a state based upon the rule of law,” Boersen-Zeitung wrote.
Perhaps the most entertaining comparison was made today by Pirmin Bischof, a Swiss lawmaker. As my colleague Madeline Chambers reported here, Bischof said: “This is a new form of bank robbery. Before you had to go to the bank and get hold of the money with a weapon. Today you can do it electronically by stealing data. This should not be allowed in a country based on the rule of law.”
PHOTO – Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a collector’s edition of Two-Euro coins during a presentation of the newly designed Two-Euro coin in Berlin, January 29, 2010. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz