Barclays vs Dahabshiil: when a Somali money transfer company takes on a banking giant

The Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil has won an injunction against Barclays, which had been threatening to cut off services to the company.

Yesterday, the Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil won an injunction against Barclays, which had been threatening to cut off services to the company over money-laundering fears. It’s hard to underestimate how significant this decision will prove for ordinary Somalis. Every year, British Somalis send around ₤500m home to relative and friends, and for many in Somalia, this is their primary source of income.

Overall the Somali diaspora send around $1.3bn home annually, and as years of civil conflict have left the country’s economy and banking sector in tatters, remittances are worth around 50 per cent of Somalia’s economy.

The main money transfer companies, like Western Union, which in 2012 was responsible for global money transfers of $72bn, do not operate in Somalia. Barclays is the only bank still offering services to small operators like Dahabshiil. If Barclays had been allowed to sever ties with Dahabshiil the effect for ordinary Somalis would be much greater than the cutting of all UK aid to Somalia: DfID pledged to deliver 63m in aid in 2012/13. No wonder the campaign to preserve this Somali lifeline has attracted high-profile supporters, including Mo Farah.

If Barclays had succeeded in cutting its relationship with Dahabshiil, this might have absolved it of responsibility to implement tough money-laundering checks, but it wouldn’t have stopped money flowing from the UK to groups like Al-Shabab. Removing formal channels would only force Somalis to rely on more expensive, less reliable informal money transfer agents. British-Somalis would find it harder to send money home, and UK authorities would struggle to monitor cash flows into Somalia.

Unfortunately, Dahabshiil was only granted extra time, and next year there will be new hearings to determine if it can still use Barclay’s services. Millions of Somalis may breathe a sigh of relief, but this problem isn't over yet.
 

A Somali money changer. Remittances from abroad make up half of the country's economy. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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