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DHS collecting money transfer data without a warrant, senator says

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is seen during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee nomination hearing on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.
Greg Nash

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) obtained millions of people’s financial transaction records without warrants as part of a covert surveillance operation, according to a lawmaker. 

The program, conducted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, collected data on money transfers over $500 sent to and from Mexico, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a letter to the DHS’s inspector general released to the public Tuesday.

BuzzFeed News first reported on the program.

Wyden is now calling for an investigation into the collection of records, which the DHS has now committed to stop requesting.

“Law-enforcement agencies have ample authority to subpoena financial information about individual or specific transactions they believe are related to illicit activity,” he wrote to DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari.

“Instead of squandering resources collecting millions of transactions from people merely because they live or transact with individuals in a handful of Southwestern states or have relatives in Mexico, HSI and other agencies should focus their resources on individuals actually suspected of breaking the law.”  

Agents in ICE’s domestic arm, Homeland Security Investigations, compelled two money transfer companies to turn over information on every movement of over $500, to and from California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Two dozen other money transfer firms voluntarily handed over the information.

The transaction data was then shared with federal, state and local agencies that were able to access it without a warrant. It could not be determined how those agencies then used the data.

The program kicked off in 2010 with Arizona’s state attorney general collecting similar data from Western Union.

The information was shared with agencies via a nonprofit formed by Arizona’s AG in 2014 called the Transaction Record Analysis Center, or TRAC. 

Some transfer companies stopped voluntarily sharing data with TRAC in 2019, according to Wyden’s letter, when an agreement with the AG stemming from a money laundering case expired.

Arizona’s AG then called on ICE to compel the data to be shared. 

The agency has issued six summons to Western Union and two to Maxitransfers Corp. since 2019.

A spokesperson for the DHS said HSI is “committed to ensuring that our criminal investigative methods are not only effective in combatting transnational criminal actors and other security threats, but also consistent with the law and best practices.” 

The use of customs summons has been paused, they added.

Arizona AG spokesperson Katie Conner defended the use of TRAC to “legally monitor international wire cash transfers from border states to Mexico.”

“It is ironic that during a historic border crisis, this would be the focus of any U.S. Senator,” she added.

A spokesperson for Western Union said in a statement that it “is committed to protecting the personal data of our customers, as well as combatting serious criminal activity such as money laundering, human trafficking, and human smuggling” and works actively with law enforcement.

The production of data to TRAC, they added, was no longer required after 2019 with the dismissal of a court order.

“We are unable to comment further on law enforcement investigations,” the spokesperson said.

The Hill has reached out to TRAC and Maxitransfers for comment.

Immigration advocacy groups slammed news of the program.

“It’s beyond disturbing that ICE has been using blanket subpoenas for so long to help create mass financial surveillance and continues to have access to this data,” said Julie Mao, deputy director for Just Futures Law.

“In fact, more than twenty companies are continuing to voluntarily share their data with the TRAC platform which can be accessed by ICE and hundreds of other law enforcement agencies. We call on ICE to end this arrangement and for elimination of all data from TRAC.”

—Updated at 5:50 p.m.

Tags ICE Immigration and Customs Enforcement international money transfers Ron Wyden

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