“These records paint a damning portrait of government overreach.”
That’s how Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, and Fikayo Walter-Johnson, a former paralegal with the project, introduced over 200 documents obtained via public records request and released Wednesday on the civil liberties group’s website.
The national ACLU and its Arizona arm sought the records after U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) revealed last year that “Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a law enforcement component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was operating an indiscriminate and bulk surveillance program that swept up millions of financial records about Americans.”
Following a February 2022 briefing with senior HSI personnel, Wyden wrote a March letter urging DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to launch a probe into the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC)—a nonprofit created as a result of a settlement between the Arizona attorney general’s office and Western Union, a financial services company that fought in state court against the AG’s attempt to obtain money transfer records.
As the ACLU released records about TRAC, Wyden on Wednesday shared a new letter requesting that “the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigate the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) relationship” with the Arizona-based clearinghouse.
“My oversight activities over the past year have uncovered troubling information, revealing that the scale of this government surveillance program is far greater than was previously reported,” Wyden wrote to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
“Between October and December of 2022, my office received information from three other money transfer companies—Euronet (RIA Envia), MoneyGram, and Viamericas—which confirmed that they also delivered customer data in bulk to TRAC, in response to legal demands from HSI and other governmental agencies,” the senator divulged.
Some customs summonses—a form of subpoena—applied to transfers of $500 or more between any U.S. state and 22 other countries and one U.S. territory. Those summonses were withdrawn “just 10 days after HSI had briefed my staff” in February, Wyden noted, adding that HSI has not yet scheduled his requested follow-up briefing.
Summarizing the documents acquired by the ACLU, Freed Wessler and Walter-Johnson wrote:
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.
The documents we obtained reveal the enormous scale of this surveillance program. According to the minutes of TRAC board meetings we obtained, the database of people’s money transfer records grew from 75 million records from 14 money service businesses in 2017 to 145 million records from 28 different companies in 2021. By 2021, 12,000 individuals from 600 law enforcement agencies had been provided with direct log-in access to the database. By May 2022, over 700 law enforcement entities had or still have access to the TRAC database, ranging from a sheriff’s office in a small Idaho county, to the Los Angeles and New York police departments, to federal law enforcement agencies and military police units.
As Freed Wessler told The Wall Street Journal, which exclusively reported on the materials, “Ordinary people’s private financial records are being siphoned indiscriminately into a massive database, with access given to virtually any cop who wants it.”
Freed Wessler and Walter-Johnson also highlighted that “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.”
Originally published at Commondreams.org.