Seriously, what's with FBI, DEA vacuuming up people's money transfer records?
Warrantless surveillance branded illegal, said to unfairly target the poor, immigrants, minorities
US government investigators have been demanding and receiving millions of money-transfer records from Western Union and similar outfits. Now US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wants an investigation into this bulk financial surveillance.
Wyden in a January 18 letter [PDF] asked the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (DOJ-OIG) to investigate the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) relationship with the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), a non-profit apparently set up by the Arizona Attorney General that provides federal, state, and local government agencies with money transfer records.
Last year, in March, Wyden revealed the existence of a previously unpublicized bulk data collection program run by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a group within the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit. HSI officials were said to have issued summonses to Western Union and Maxitransfers for millions of money transfer records of $500 or more, to or from four states – Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas – and Mexico.
These money transfer companies were ordered to provide records to TRAC, which in turn made the data available so it could be searched by thousands of law enforcement agencies. Such surveillance was not evenly distributed – comparable record demands were not made of money transfer apps like Venmo/PayPal, Zelle, Wise, Cash App, and Green Dot (Apple Cash), according to Wyden.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation insist bulk surveillance of this sort is illegal since it occurs without proper judicial oversight.
In a post published on Wednesday, Fikayo Walter-Johnson, with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and Nathan Freed Wessler, Deputy Director of ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, said:
"From 2014 to 2021, Arizona attorneys general issued at least 140 administrative subpoenas to money transfer companies, each requesting that the company periodically provide customer transaction records for the next year. Those subpoenas were issued under the same state statute that the Arizona Court of Appeals held in 2006 could not be used for these kinds of indiscriminate requests for money transfer records.
"This means the Arizona attorney general’s office knowingly issued 140 illegal subpoenas to build an invasive data repository."
Walter-Johnson and Wessler condemned the bulk collection of transaction data as government overreach and demanded that the financial surveillance program be shut down.
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Wyden's letter to the DoJ Inspector General indicates that the financial surveillance was far broader than suggested last year and involved at least three other money transfer firms Euronet (RIA Envia), MoneyGram and Viamericas.
The data gathering, according to Wyden, applied to financial records of transfers of $500 or more between any US state, 22 foreign countries, and one US territory: Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Tortola (British Virgin Islands), Bolivia, the US Virgin Islands, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Hong Kong, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Curaçao, China, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Panama, France, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Thailand, Bahamas and Barbados.
"This unorthodox arrangement between state law enforcement, DHS and DOJ agencies to collect bulk money-transfer data raises a number of concerns about surveillance disproportionately affecting low-income, minority and immigrant communities," Wyden wrote in his letter to the DoJ OIG.
"Members of these communities are more likely to use money transfer services because they are more likely to be unbanked, and therefore unable to send money using electronic checking or international bank wire transfers, which are often cheaper. Moreover, money transfer businesses are not subject to the same protections as bank-based transactions under the Right to Financial Privacy Act."
Wyden said he's working on rules to close legal loopholes in order to provide users of money transfer services with the same privacy as those who transfer money via banks or money transfer apps. ®