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US Spy Agencies to Get Access to Trove of Citizens' Private Financial Data

'The intelligence community simply ignores the rules'

Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia, August 14, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

Multiple U.S. agencies will soon have access to a massive database of private financial data on citizens and individuals who do business in the U.S., giving national intelligence agencies the ability "to analyze more raw financial data than they have ever had before."

These revelations were reported by Reuters after the news outlet gained access to a Treasury Department document.

The private data, previously available only to the FBI, will now be widely accessible for a number of agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, raising privacy concerns among critics.

The database in question—called the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)— currently operates as a database for financial institutions who are required by law to file reports of "suspicious customer activity" to the FBI.

However, as Reuters reports, the database is flawed and commonly 'over reports' innocent citizens' personal information:

The Treasury document outlines a proposal to link the FinCEN database with a computer network used by U.S. defense and law enforcement agencies to share classified information called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System.

The plan calls for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence - set up after 9/11 to foster greater collaboration among intelligence agencies - to work with Treasury. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

More than 25,000 financial firms - including banks, securities dealers, casinos, and money and wire transfer agencies - routinely file "suspicious activity reports" to FinCEN. The requirements for filing are so strict that banks often over-report, so they cannot be accused of failing to disclose activity that later proves questionable. This over-reporting raises the possibility that the financial details of ordinary citizens could wind up in the hands of spy agencies.

Michael German, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told Reuters there is alarming "wiggle room" within the new plan and significant concern about how the vast trove of information could be used (or misused).

Once spy agencies get such data, German said, "it's in a black hole. Time and again, we have evidence, unfortunately well after the fact, that somebody's civil rights have been violated, that the intelligence community simply ignores the rules."

The Treasury planning document obtained by Reuters says that the planning for the database expansion is still in development, and it is not known when implementation might begin.


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