A secretive financial surveillance database established by the Arizona attorney general’s office in 2014 has ballooned into a behemoth tool used by more than 600 law-enforcement entities, which can search for more than 150 million money transfers between people in the US and more than 20 countries, according to internal program documents obtained by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
The database is called TRAC, or Transational Record Analysis Center, and was established as part of a settlement reached with Western Union to combat human trafficking and drug runners from Mexico. The data includes the full names of both the sender and the recipient, along with the amount of the transaction, the Wall Street Journal reports.
“It’s a law-enforcement investigative tool,” said Rich Lebel, TRAC’s director, who claims that the program has resulted in hundreds of leads and busts involving drug cartels and other criminals engaged in money laundering. “We don’t broadcast it to the world, but we don’t run from or hide from it either.”
Three money-services companies, MoneyGram, Euronet, and Viamericas, sent TRAC bulk tranches of customer data in response to subpoenas issued out of the San Juan, Puerto Rico office of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Euronet and Viamericas had received customs summonses from that office seeking data for transactions between anywhere in the U.S. and countries including many in the Caribbean and Latin America as well as Canada, France, Spain, Ukraine and China, the companies told Mr. Wyden. Those subpoenas ordered the money-services companies to turn the data over to TRAC. -WSJ
What’s more, many of the subpoenas given to TRAC were extremely broad – often requiring all data on transfers between certain places above the $500 threshold, according to the documents – even in cases where an American living in a border state sends $500 or more to another American living elsewhere in the country.
Sen. Wyden thinks differently, saying TRAC allows the government to “serve itself an all-you-can-eat buffet of Americans’ personal financial data while bypassing the normal protections for Americans’ privacy.”
Internal records, including TRAC meeting minutes and copies of 140 subpoenas from the Arizona attorney general, were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. They show that any authorized law-enforcement agency can query the data without a warrant to examine the transactions of people inside the U.S. for evidence of money laundering and other crimes. One slideshow prepared by a TRAC investigator showed how the program’s data could be used to scan for categories such as “Middle Eastern/Arabic names” in bulk transaction records. -WSJ
“Ordinary people’s private financial records are being siphoned indiscriminately into a massive database, with access given to virtually any cop who wants it,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “This program should never have been launched, and it must be shut down now.“
The program was established due to lax rules surrounding money-transfer services companies. While banks have to monitor transactions for suspicious activity – and report over $10,000 in cash transactions, companies such as Western Union and MoneyGram don’t have to. Now, customer transactions above $500 are available in the TRAC database.
What’s more, Wyden uncovered that the federal government has participated in TRAC, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Investigations division, collected around six million records of money transfers from Western Union and Maxitransfers since 2019.
“The scope of this surveillance program and federal agencies’ role is far greater than initially revealed,” said Wyden in a letter asking the DOJ inspector general to investigate the FBI and DEA’s involvement with the program.