Bank secrecy (or bank privacy) is a legal principle in some jurisdictions under which banks are not allowed to provide to authorities personal and account information about their customers unless certain conditions apply (for example, a criminal complaint has been filed). In some cases, additional privacy is provided to beneficial owners through the use of numbered bank accounts or otherwise. Bank secrecy is prevalent in certain countries such as Switzerland, Lebanon, Singapore and Luxembourg, as well as offshore banks and other tax havens under voluntary or statutory privacy provisions.
Created by the Swiss Banking Act of 1934, which led to the famous Swiss bank, the principle of bank secrecy is always considered one of the main aspects of private banking. It has also been accused by NGOs and governments of being one of the main instruments of underground economy and organized crime, in particular following the class action suit against the Vatican Bank in the 1990s, the Clearstream scandal and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Former bank employees from banks in Switzerland (UBS, Julius Baer) and Liechtenstein (LGT Group) have testified that their former institutions helped clients evade billions of dollars in taxes by routing money through offshore havens in the Caribbean and Switzerland. One of these, Rudolf M. Elmer, wrote, "It is a global problem...Offshore tax evasion is the biggest theft among societies and neighbor states in this world." The Swiss Parliament ratified on June 17, 2010 an agreement between the Swiss and the United States governments allowing UBS to transmit to the US authorities information concerning 4,450 American clients of UBS suspected of tax evasion.
Advances in financial cryptography (e.g. public-key cryptography) could make it possible to use anonymous electronic money and anonymous digital bearer certificates for financial privacy and anonymous Internet banking, given enabling institutions (e.g. issuers of such certificates and digital cash) and secure computer systems.
Bank secrecy was codified by the 1934 Swiss Banking Act following a public scandal in France, when MP Fabien Alberty denounced tax evasion by eminent French personalities, including politicians, judges, industrialists, church dignitaries and directors of newspapers, who were hiding their money in Switzerland. He called these men of "a particularly ticklish patriotism", who "probably are unaware that the money they deposit abroad is lent by Switzerland to Germany". The Peugeot brothers and François Coty, of the famous perfume family, were on his list. Since then, Swiss banks have acquired worldwide celebrity due to their numbered bank accounts, which critics such as ATTAC NGO alleged only help legalized tax evasion, money laundering and more generally the underground economy. Alternatively, secrecy laws allowed at the same period Jews and others to escape from Nazi Germany without losing everything. Having moved assets to Switzerland, Swiss authorities were not allowed to answer German questions about who had what where. Even employees of German banks in Switzerland were not allowed to answer questions from their employer in Germany. The value of this discretion became even greater as the whole of continental Europe was occupied. Bank secrecy therefore was, and remains a protection of the individual against the power of the state.
Under the Swiss principle of bank secrecy, privacy is statutorily enforced, with Swiss law strictly limiting any information shared with third parties, including tax authorities, foreign governments or even Swiss authorities, except when requested by a Swiss judge's subpoena. However banking is not strictly anonymous since under its banking law all Swiss bank accounts, including numbered bank accounts, are linked to an identified individual. This law only permits a bank to share information with others in cases of severe criminal acts, such as identifying a terrorist's bank account or tax fraud, but not simple non-reporting of taxable income (called tax evasion in Switzerland). In April 2013, French Minister Jérôme Cahuzac was forced to resign when the Geneva public prosecutor, acting quicly on a French request related to tax fraud, found evidence of undeclared Swiss accounts.