Senate Democrat calls for investigation of mass money transfer surveillance

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Greg Nash
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) addresses reporters following the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, September 13, 2022.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Wednesday called for the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general to investigate federal law enforcement agencies’ use of a nonprofit database that has amassed millions of records on money transfers between the U.S. and more than 20 countries.

In an arrangement that the senator described as a “bulk surveillance program,” an Arizona-based nonprofit called the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC) has provided federal, state and local law enforcement agencies with “unrestricted access” to mass amounts of data on Americans’ money transfers.

Wyden requested in a letter to the DOJ inspector general on Wednesday that it investigate TRAC’s relationship with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

This follows the senator’s request in March that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general look into the use of that same database by the agency’s law enforcement arm, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

“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 said in Wednesday’s letter.

Wyden’s investigation had previously focused solely on HSI’s use of customs summons, a form of administrative subpoena, to obtain records of money transfers over $500 between several states in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

However, Wyden’s latest request revealed that several money transfer companies had sent bulk customer data to TRAC for both domestic and foreign transfers, including those between people in the U.S. and 22 foreign countries and one territory. These companies sent the records in response to legal requests from the various law enforcement agencies.

TRAC had accumulated about 145 million records from 28 different companies as of 2021, and more than 700 law enforcement entities had access to the database as of May, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also released on Wednesday.

“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 said.

Money transfer companies — such as Western Union, Maxitransfers Corporation, Euronet, MoneyGram and Viamericas — are often used by people who don’t have access to bank accounts or typical financial services, according to the ACLU.

TRAC, which the ACLU described as “a nominally independent organization,” was created as part of a settlement agreement between Western Union and the Arizona attorney general’s office to house customer records that the company agreed to turn over. 

“Law enforcement agencies have ample authority to subpoena financial information about individual or specific transactions they believe are related to illicit activity,” Wyden said in Wednesday’s letter.

“Instead of squandering resources collecting millions of transactions through this bulk surveillance program, the government should focus its resources on individuals actually suspected of breaking the law,” he added.

Tags Arizona attorney general Department of Homeland Security Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration FBI Homeland Security Investigations Money transfers Ron Wyden Ron Wyden Transaction Record Analysis Center

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