With the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, the use of Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) to the government regarding your behavior expanded greatly. The claim: snooping into your business would ferret out the terrorists in our midst. But new numbers released by the U.S. Government show that while the number of SARs sent to the government about you continue to soar, the number of reports to the government having to do with terrorism has never been high, and is actually on the decrease. The huge increase in these Patriot Act reports on Americans is due to surges in surveillance of non-terrorist activity.
Yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury quietly released its twice-yearly report summarizing the filing of Suspicious Activity Reports with the government. As Adam Davidson of NPR reported earlier this year, the government sucks up these mandated reports on your activity without so much as the warrant that the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution demands:
Banks monitor every transaction. Every one, no matter how small….
“Your transaction is being transferred to the bank and it will be loaded into our transaction monitoring system and we will actually add this transaction together with several other types of transaction that you’ve done recently.”
The software is checking to see if maybe that $4 is part of a pattern…. The report goes to a bank’s compliance officer, listing all recent suspicious transactions. Every transaction is given a numerical score…. The computer makes the score based on who is making the transaction, where does he come from, who is he associated with, what else is he up to. Every bank customer has, somewhere, in some computer database, a risk assessment score….
It also checks a bunch of lists. Are you on a terror watch list? A list of criminals?… A PEP — banks really do use that term — is anybody with political power. That means a Nigerian General, a U.S. Senator, or, say, the Governor of New York. And any PEP — any Politically Exposed Person — is monitored more carefully…. The Patriot Act forced banks to more closely monitor suspicious activity.
Davidson’s mention of “the Governor of New York” was not random. As a Politically Exposed Person, Eliot Spitzer was under extra surveillance, even though there was no suspicion of any illegal activity on his part and no warrant from a judge for the collection of the suspicious activity reports that ensnared him and led to his political downfall. What other “Politically Exposed Persons” have been compromised by the collection of a SAR? What have been the consequences, not just for politicians but for the rest of us?
We don’t know the answer to those questions, but we do know this: the collection of SARs in 2008 is on pace to match and possibly exceed the all-time high of 2007:
(Data for 2008 is an estimate for all of 2008, based on actual data for January-June 2008 and multiplied by 2. Final data for 2008 will be available May 2009.)
Has all this warrantless surveillance delivered on the promise of the Patriot Act back in 2001, the promise that if we would surrender our liberty the government would use its power over us to get the terrorists?
A read of that Treasury Department report indicates that the government is using that power for something else. Despite the overall increase in SARs:
The number of depository institution filings depicting Terrorist Financing as a suspicious activity (in whole or in part) has decreased since 2004. Terrorist Financing presently ranks 21st among the 22 summary characterizations of suspicious activity. Reported instances of Terrorist Financing decreased 28.21% in the first six months of 2008. The number of reported instances of Terrorist Financing has decreased, every year, since 2004.
The government has placed this information in front of us, but it has done so very quietly. The Treasury Department hasn’t included the report in its front page list of “recent news,” nor has it linked to the report from its press page. Perhaps this is why the press, increasingly used to being spoon-fed, appears not to have written a single story on the report. The independent blogosphere is also mum. If you think this information is important, please spread the word.