Typically, the United States government isn’t supposed to get at financial data of citizens unless they are suspected of a crime and a warrant has been issued. However, bank spying has been authorized for intelligence agencies, meaning everyone’s financial data can be viewed at any time.
Bank spying powers given to the spooks
It used to be that a person’s personal information, aside from publicly available things like name, address and telephone number, could only be accessed by law enforcement local or federal if they had just cause and a warrant.
Those were the good old days, when the Fourth Amendment actually meant something.
The Obama administration, according to Reuters, is reportedly approving a plan that would grant unilateral access to intelligence agencies to view financial information including account activity, outstanding loans and payments and so forth. Normally, bank spying is where a bank spies on its customers, such as the Deutsche Bank scandal, but in this case, it’s the federales.
FBI already has access
The database in question is called the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network or FinCEN, which is maintained by the Treasury Department. The database is currently freely available to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for financial surveillance, but intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and so forth have to be granted access on a case-by-case basis.
The agreement would give such agencies free access for bank spying, though it wouldn’t be as invasive as one might think.
Have to be suspicious to be noticed
The database was created as part of the Bank Secrecy Act, which aside from establishing the illegality and penalties assessed on money laundering, holds that banks have to report any “suspicious activity” in transactions, for instance if a bank believes a deposit was made with illegally-obtained funds, they have to report it. Any and all cash transactions of $10,000 or more also has to be reported.
FinCEN is also a key agency, according to the Wall Street Journal, in cracking down on tax refund fraud, specifically instances involved direct deposits of returns filed as a result of identity theft. More than 25,000 institutions, according to Reuters, file reports with FinCEN, making more than 15 million reports annually, according to Wired.
Though privacy watchdogs and civil libertarians are right to be concerned about bank spying by these agencies – this is the United States government after all and anyone familiar with history knows they damn well skip constitutional mandate when convenient – there is cause to not worry too much. In order to get reported to FinCEN, one usually has to have conducted a legally dubious transaction. If you have nothing to hide, you probably have nothing to fear.