Reuters has obtained a Treasury Department planning document that shows the Obama administration is currently in early stages of a proposal allowing U.S. spy agencies access to a major database containing the financial transactions of American citizens and others who bank in the country. Under the similar umbrella of preventing terrorist activities, this proposal comes in the wake of the drone controversy and might spark more anger regarding civil liberties on both sides of the political aisle.
American financial institutions are required to keep track of "suspicious criminal activity" such as cash transactions above $10,000 or exceedingly large money transfers in the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network database. Originally set up in 1990 to help law enforcement track gangs and money launderers, the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 expanded FinCEN's mission to tracking terrorist cells after 9/11. As a result, FinCEN receives 15,000 transactions from over 25,000 banks, wire transfer agencies, casinos and other financial firms. The FBI already has access to FinCEN to monitor cases of money laundering, loan fraud, or computer hacking, and has used the information successfully in tracking drug syndicates and major crime networks. Under this proposal, the CIA and NSA would be able to make requests for information on a case-by-case basis.
The amount of data these agencies would have access to is unprecedented. According to the Reuters report, the agencies would get raw data to help identify patterns of behavior. On the one hand, this gives the spy agencies more ammunition in the War on Terror, and could help thwart domestic attacks. However, any move by the government to track its citizens more than it already does is going to be seen as an encroachment of privacy and rights.
To avoid angering more people on concerns of privacy of American citizens, the Obama administration (and its communication department) needs to clearly outline the circumstances under which the agencies can request this information, and what they are allowed to do with the information. These restrictions would help calm the masses lest they believe their financial activity has landed them on a list somewhere without transparent due process, and the administration should be as explicit as possible in its proposal lest another senator find their explanation unsatisfactory.
The proposal is in an early enough stage that it could be scrapped or altered significantly depending on media attention over the next few weeks, but it will not be the only time or the only administration that will attempt to expand access to such information as we move deeper into the information era.