Are the Feds Using Backdoor Searches to Access Your Banking Data?

BuzzFeed reports federal agencies violating the rules to engage in warrantless domestic snooping of financial information.


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While civil rights and privacy advocates attempt to try to shut a federal surveillance "backdoor" used to snoop on Americans' communications without a warrant, today a BuzzFeed report warns of the existence of another one involving all our bank accounts.

Jason Leopold and Jessica Garrison today report that citizens' banking and financial data are being searched and stored by federal organizations that do not have the authority to do so. For those who have been following the controversies over federal surveillance of Americans, the contours of these allegations will seem familiar: An organization who is supposed to be using its surveillance to track foreign activity is also using its access to snoop on Americans.

BuzzFeed reports:

At issue is the collection and dissemination of information from a vast database of mostly US citizens' banking and financial records that banks turn over to the government each day. Banks and other financial institutions are required, under the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, to report suspicious transactions and cash transactions over $10,000. The database is maintained by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, a bank regulator charged with combatting money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes. Under the law, it has unfettered powers to peruse and retain the data.

In contrast to FinCEN, Treasury's intelligence division, known as the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, or OIA, is charged with monitoring suspicious financial activity that occurs outside the US. Under a seminal Reagan-era executive order, a line runs through the Treasury Department and all other federal agencies separating law enforcement, which targets domestic crimes, from intelligence agencies, which focus on foreign threats and can surveil US citizens only in limited ways and by following stringent guidelines.

FinCEN officials have accused their counterparts at OIA, an intelligence unit, of violating this separation by illegally collecting and retaining domestic financial information from the banking database. Some sources have also charged that OIA analysts have, in a further legal breach, been calling up financial institutions to make inquiries about individual bank accounts and transactions involving US citizens. Sources said the banks have complied with the requests because they are under the impression they are giving the information to FinCEN, which they are required to do.

And then, according to BuzzFeed, this information is getting accessed by CIA and defense officials in circumstances that are not supposed to be allowed. Much like the controversy of the misuse of Section 702 surveillance authorities, this is a case where a whole host of federal agencies are getting unwarranted, secret access to Americans' private data—financial information in this case.

Contain your surprise: This behavior preceded President Donald Trump's administration and was happening while President Barack Obama was president. It's another reminder that despite campaigning on openness and transparency, Obama's administration oversaw and encouraged a massive, secretive surveillance apparatus.

Read the BuzzFeed story here.