At the end of 2008, Hervé Falciani committed what is believed to have been the most portentous theft of banking data in history. The systems engineer and former employee at the Geneva offices of HSBC left Switzerland for France and took data from around 130,000 customers at the Anglo-Asian bank along with him.
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Falciani, 41, has also cooperated with the American authorities. Indeed, on the strength of the information he provided, HBSC was forced to pay a $1.9 billion settlement with the United States after a Senate committee found that failures in HSBC's money-laundering controls had enabled terrorists and drug cartels to gain access to the US financial system.
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Falciani: Banks such as HSBC have created a system for making themselves rich at the expense of society, by assisting in tax evasion and money laundering.
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SPIEGEL: Many Swiss banks now profess to engage only in legal practices, kicking out any clients who don't disclose whether they have paid taxes. Do you find this shift credible?
Falciani: No, I don't. Just the fact that they face international competition ensures that banks will continue to offer wealthy clients ways to evade tax authorities.
SPIEGEL: The European Commission wants to create a comprehensive automatic system for exchanging information throughout Europe. How effective would such regulations be in putting a stop to shady practices engaged in by banks and tax evaders?
Falciani: Banks have a strong self-preservation instinct and are quick to adapt to new regulations. Money is easy to hide. HSBC has a strategy division that takes care of such things. For example, a bank might bring in intermediary companies, sometimes at multiple levels, and make sure business isn't conducted through the bank's own accounts. They offer clients non-banking products, life insurance policies that exist for the sole purpose of tax evasion for example, or gold, which the bank stores in its safety deposit boxes for a fee.
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SPIEGEL: The United States has taken tougher action against Swiss banks. Should the EU follow that lead?
Falciani: At first glance, that appears to be true -- the US, for example, imposed a heavy fine against HSBC for money laundering. But I was surprised that the American authorities decided HSBC was "too big to jail" -- in other words, they shied away from imposing prison sentences on bank managers, although it's hard to imagine that top-level managers knew nothing of the bank's systemic participation in money laundering.