Should governments buy stolen data when hunting tax evaders?

That’s the question a series of governments across Europe have been grappling with in the last few months. Stolen Swiss bank data reveals key evidence about tax evaders from several countries. Not only is it stolen data but it is only being made available at a price:

A CD identifying around 1500 Germans who have illicit Swiss accounts was procured by a former employee at the Geneva branch of HSBC bank. The disc, which could return an estimated €200 million ($393 million) in lost revenue, was offered to the German Government for €2.5 million…

Merkel and her Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schuble, initially greeted the offer as a welcome means of bringing tax evaders to book. “Like everyone else, I think that tax evaders need to be uncovered,” Merkel said.

[Earlier this month], however, it became clear that Germany’s apparent readiness to buy stolen bank data had plunged Merkel into a row with Switzerland and her own conservative Christian Democratic Union. Leading members of the party described the plan to buy the CD as immoral. [New Zealand Herald]

In 2008, the German secret service paid up for similar data from Liechtenstein’s LGT bank and it’s not only Germany where the data has caught the eye of those on the trail of tax evaders:

The Netherlands also confirmed it is seeking copies of stolen Swiss bank data on cross-border tax evaders that the German government is considering purchasing from an informant. Belgium also wants copies of the data. [Investment International]

In addition to the debate about whether stolen data should be purchased and then used as evidence, there is also the question of whether acquiring such data helps or hinders the attempts to put pressure on governments such as the Swiss to change their bank secrecy laws in order to make it harder for tax dodgers to hide. Does buying stolen data and highlighting the scale of evasion (and by implication the level of profits being made by banks from such evasions) increase the pressure or does it make governments feel under siege and less willing to help?

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