The NSA doesn't only hoover up your emails, web surfing habits and phone call metadata – they also harvest your credit card records and banking transactions.
The latest leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA is monitoring international banking and credit card transactions that pass through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) as well as the systems of several companies, including Visa. Anyone who has tried to transfer money between two countries will know that the SWIFT network is used by more than 8,000 banking institutions in over 200 countries to "securely" send their customers' transaction information.
According to the leaked documents, the aptly named "Follow The Money" 1 NSA team takes a lead in monitoring international financial transactions, German news magazine Der Spiegel reports.
These monitored transactions end up as entries in an NSA database called "Tracfin", which held 180 million records in 2011, according to revelations from Snowden. The majority of these records (84 per cent) covered credit card transactions, captured under a programme called "Dishfire", according to the documents seen by the German paper.
Only 180 million records? How abstemious...
SWIFT processes over 15 million transactions every day, so the real surprise in the latest revelation is that the Tracfin database only stores 180 million records. The US Treasury, a separate branch of the US government, already has an openly known information-sharing agreement where the US can issue subpoenas to Brussels-based SWIFT for information about international transactions by suspected terrorists. More details on the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program can be found on the US Treasury website.
According to the documents seen by the paper, the NSA's financial records database targets transactions in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and is designed to track terrorism-related financial transactions. The spying operation targets non-US citizens and so is less legally contentious than the dragnet surveillance of Verizon call record metadata – which was yesterday defended by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge as being "authorized under the 2001 law known as the Patriot Act" – or the PRISM web surveillance programme, to quote just two examples.
Deal or no deal?
The latest revelations do, however, raise questions about whether core systems at Visa and SWIFT were compromised by the US's signals intelligence agency or whether they acquiesced to its demands.
In a statement, Visa told Der Spiegel that "we are not aware of any unauthorised access to our network" adding "Visa's policy to only provide transaction information in response to a subpoena or other valid legal process".
According to the documents, NSA spied on SWIFT, using "multiple techniques". Tactics apparently included reading SWIFT printer traffic from numerous banks.
The documents also revealed that even close allies of the NSA within the intelligence community had apparently expressed reservations about widespread spying on financial records.
Der Spiegel noted that memos within the leaked documents, purportedly from British intelligence agency GCHQ, had cautioned that:
...the collection and sharing of "politically sensitive" [financial transaction] data is a highly invasive measure since it includes "bulk data - rich personal information. A lot of it is not about our targets."
SWIFT and Visa were earlier named alongside Petrobas as targets of NSA spying by a Brazilian TV programme earlier this month.
A follow-up analysis by Spiegel Online, written by filmmaker turned Snowden collaborator Laura Poitras and others, can be found here. ®
1 Watergate whistleblower "Deep Throat" famously told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters investigating the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration, to "follow the money" to unearth links between the burglars and the administration. Deep Throat was identified as former FBI associate director Mark Felt after he outed himself in 2005.