Big Brother is watching your money, and it’s hardly ever to catch those rascally terrorists.
Passed in 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act lowered the bar for government surveillance of Americans’ financial transactions, and American financial institutions have been deputized to assist. Banks now monitor every financial transaction and pass it through a software program to look for patterns of “suspicious activity.” Even if the financial transaction is perfectly legal, if it surpasses a threshold a bank must send on a “suspicious activity report” to the federal government.
Last week, the U.S. government’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network released its latest “SAR Activity Review — By The Numbers,” a series of reports on the volume of suspicious activity reports beginning in 1996 and now complete through the end of 2010. Interrupted only by a small dip in 2009, the number of suspicious activity reports to the federal government rose to a new record high in 2010.
The vast surveillance activity carried out by financial institutions for the U.S. government was triggered by the terrorist attacks of September 11 2011 and the subsequent passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. But how often are these new activities directed at terrorist activity, and how often are they used to ferret out something else? For the first time this year, the Department of Treasury’s annual report discloses these numbers to the public. In 2009, just 0.04% of all suspicious activity reports indicated a suspicion of possible terrorist-related activity. Nine thousand, nine hundred ninety six times out of ten thousand, reports were generated for reasons having nothing to do with suspected terrorist activity. In 2010, just 0.05% of all suspicious activity reports indicated suspicion of possible terrorist-related activity. The government’s power is being used to sift through everybody’s financial records without the probable cause warrants required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it’s being done for all sorts of reasons that overwhelmingly have nothing to do with terrorism.
One of those reasons to comb through financial records is for the government to check in on the behavior of PEPs — “Politically Exposed Persons.” Adam Davidson of NPR explains:
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.
A separate study just published by the U.S. Department of Treasury indicates that from 2009 to 2010, 1170 suspicious activity reports were filed to keep the government abreast of activities carried out by these Politically Exposed Persons. These were apparently not activities carried out by foreign suspicious persons, being mutually exclusive with another 124 reports of “foreign corruption”; the top ten locations of Politically Exposed Persons reported to the federal government were New York, Florida, California, Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Washington DC, New Jersey, Illinois and Georgia (accounting together for 755 of the 1170 reports).
If we are to be lied to and told that these Patriot Act reports are being used primarily to stop terrorists, then we also ought to at least be told how they’re being used to track politicians. Somehow, that second piece of information just doesn’t seem to make it out to the public: in the wake of the government’s quietly released report, there’s not been a single story in the papers to share the news about surveillance of politically exposed persons.