One of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act of 2001 was to mandate that banks and other financial institutions send on an increased number of “suspicious activity reports” about the financial activity of Americans at a lower threshold for what qualifies as “suspicious” and a greater emphasis on the employment of financial surveillance over PEPs: “politically exposed persons.” Adam Davidson of NPR put suspicious activity reports (also known as SARs) in context back in the spring of 2008:
Banks monitor every transaction. Every one, no matter how small…. 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 text of the latest “SAR Activity Review — By The Numbers” indicates that it was completed on schedule in June of 2009, but this report was not released until last week, the tail end of the slow 4th of July weekend. This just happens to be a week when many reporters are sent on vacation, and professional journalists have put out no news stories regarding the new data and what they mean. As a service for those journalists who might want to eventually cover the story, allow me to suggest a headlline:
Government-Mandated Surveillance of Americans’ Financial Transactions Hit Record High in 2008
And here’s the data trend from 1996 to 2008 (the year for which this report provides updated data) to back up that headline:
Have we become so inured to government surveillance programs that they are entirely unremarkable, unworthy of mention?