U.S. law enforcement agencies have access to a so-called investigative tool that amounts to “an all-you-can-eat buffet of Americans’ personal financial data while bypassing the normal protections for Americans’ privacy,” according to an investigation by Sen. Ron Wyden.
A database of 150 million money transfers called TRAC — the Transaction Record Analysis Center — was set up by the Arizona state attorney general’s office in 2014 as part of a settlement reached with Western Union to combat cross-border trafficking of drugs and people from Mexico.
The American Civil Liberties Union shared more than 200 documents on Jan. 18 gathered by way of a public records request to the Arizona attorney general’s office. The documents shed light on what amounts to a mass surveillance program keeping tabs on Americans’ financial data, the ACLU said.
TRAC has the full names of U.S. money senders, recipients and transaction amounts. It allows officials at more than 600 law-enforcement agencies—from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to small-town police departments in nearly every state—to monitor the flow of funds through money services between the U.S. and countries around the world, Wall Street Journal reported.
The program has resulted in hundreds of leads and busts involving drug cartels, money launderers, and smuggling networks, according to TRAC Director Rich Lebel.
Virtually any cop can ask for data without a warrant and examine the transactions of people inside the U.S. for evidence of money laundering and other crimes.
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“It’s a law-enforcement investigative tool,” Lebel said. “We don’t broadcast it to the world, but we don’t run from or hide from it either.”
Oregon Democrat Sen. Wyden said TRAC lets the government “serve itself an all-you-can-eat buffet of Americans’ personal financial data while bypassing the normal protections for Americans’ privacy.”
The Wall Street Journal reviewed copies of what the ACLU said are 140 illegal subpoenas from the Arizona attorney general to money transfer companies compelling them to turn over customers’ private financial data.
“Western Union, MoneyGram, and other financial services companies often serve people who otherwise may not have access to bank accounts or traditional financial services,” ACLU said. “Because members of marginalized communities rely heavily on these services rather than traditional banks, the burden of this government surveillance falls disproportionately on those already most vulnerable to law enforcement overreach.”
A slideshow prepared by a TRAC investigator showed how the program’s data could be used to scan for categories such as “Middle Eastern/Arabic names” in bulk transaction records, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“Ordinary people’s private financial records are being siphoned indiscriminately into a massive database, with access given to virtually any cop who wants it,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This program should never have been launched, and it must be shut down now.”
The records show that the federal government is more involved in the surveillance program than previously understood, the ACLU reported.
“The human toll of this kind of government surveillance is grave. It can have far-reaching consequences for people’s lives — particularly for members of communities of color, who are disproportionately subject to unjustified surveillance.”
In addition to representing people and organizations in lawsuits, the ACLU lobbies for policy positions established by its board of directors. These include opposing the death penalty, supporting reproductive and abortion rights, decarceration and the rights of prisoners.