In Depth

HSBC files: who is whistleblower Herve Falciani?

The self-described 'French Snowden' is nothing more than a common criminal, says the Swiss government

Herve Falciani began his career in the financial sector as a systems engineer for HSBC, but ended it by orchestrating the largest ever leak of sensitive banking information in the world.

The dual French-Italian national sees himself as "part James Bond, evading dangerous, powerful opponents and working with government intelligence agents, and part disappointed idealist, shocked by the reality he encountered at the bank he once worked for", according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The Swiss government, however, has a different view of him. In December 2014, Falciani was indicted on charges of qualified industrial espionage, the unauthorised obtaining of data and violating banking secrecy.

So, is Falciani a brave whistleblower responsible for lifting the lid on one of the biggest international banking scandals of the decade, or little more than a common criminal looking to make money from stolen data?

Downloading the HSBC files

Working at the Swiss branch of the bank, Falciani was tasked with implementing a new Customer Relationship Management system, but "at some point appears likely to have gained access to and collected unencrypted bank data", says ICIJ.

He says he uncovered a data breach in 2006 and attempted to bring it to the bank's attention, but was ignored. "For me, it has always been about calling attention to the banks' behaviour, after I failed to change it from (the) inside," he says.

Between 2007 and 2008, he went on to collect a trove of sensitive data on thousands of customers including celebrities, members of a number of royal families and arms dealers. The data revealed how far the bank had gone to help its wealthiest customers avoid paying tax.

"Money is easy to hide," says Falciani. "HSBC has a strategy division that takes care of such things." They have created a system for "making themselves rich at the expense of society, by assisting in tax evasion and money laundering," he said in interview with Der Spiegel in 2013.

A Mossad kidnapping, a romantic encounter and a trip to Lebanon

Sometime in 2007, Falciani alleges he was kidnapped by a group of men who claimed to be Israeli intelligence service agents from Mossad. He says they asked him to help them ensure that HSBC "did not continue its practices".

One of his colleagues, Georgina Mikhael claims that the pair were lovers and that Falciani had always planned to steal the documents and sell them on for a profit.  According to Swiss police reports, they travelled to Lebanon together to sell the information. The trip was unsuccessful as the bankers they met quickly became suspicious about how the data had been obtained.

Dealings with spies 

Upon their return to Switzerland, Falciani changed tack. According to Mikhael, he realised he couldn't sell the information to the banks so decided to "try the intelligence services". But he "came back annoyed", after meeting French spies she says. He told her: "They don't have the price that I want."

The escape 

In December 2008, Falciani was detained by Swiss police who had received a tip-off from the Lebanese bankers and Mikhael later corroborated their story. After hours of interrogation, Falciani was released and told to return the following morning.

Instead, he hired a car, picked up his wife and two daughters and fled to France, from where he could not be extradited. Several days later he handed over five computer disks filled with HSBC information to the French government.

And next...

"I'll be convicted, but I'll turn the page," he told Le Monde and ICIJ last December. "I'm going to apply for a name change, disappear, to have a normal family life.

"I'm not a white knight, but there is something beautiful and exhilarating about establishing the truth. It carries you through the bad times," he said.

His one regret? "I would have liked a term, a nickname – the informer, the insider – that would have been my real medal, the real sign of respect for all the risks I’ve run. Today I’ve got nothing."

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