SurveillanceWorld reaches into our pocketbook

The U.S. Department of Treasury is watching money flow for terrorist activity and what else?

Another brick in the wall, to take a phrase from Pink Floyd, was exposed today with the revelation that the U.S. Department of Treasury is monitoring financial transfers both inside and outside the country. In practice, the United States has done some of this kind of monitoring of international and domestic banking for many years, as any transfers of more than $10,000 has had to be reported to the government.

As with the National Security Agency's call database and Department of Justice demands that carriers and ISPs hand over user records,, the Bush Administration launched this program with the explicit assumption that traditional limits on surveillance no longer applied after 9/11. According to the Washington Post:

Initiated shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the surveillance program has used a broad new interpretation of the Treasury Department's administrative powers to bypass traditional banking privacy protections. It has swept in large volumes of international money transfers, including many made by U.S. citizens and residents, in an effort to track the locations, identities and activities of suspected terrorists.

Previously, large money transfers were monitored for tax purposes. It is reasonable to track suspected terrorists' money flows, but this should require a warrant issued by the FISA court that oversees secret warrants. Yet, again, the government has decided that it can make such enquiries of banks without a warrant based simply on their suspicions.

Now, if you look at all the behaviors that have been targeted by the political right, this program's warrantless approach to personal banking information should give pause, if not raise outright worry, among citizens who value their privacy. Government, when it gets this kind of power without an outcry from the people, tends to overreach, turning that power against all sorts of "suspicious" behavior. See Bruce Schneier's excellent argument on this topic of last week.

Even if the government has monitored large money transfers for years in order to enforce taxation, this program is different, selecting targets based on individual characteristics. If we run out of terrorists, will the government be willing to sacrifice its ability to check personal banking records without a warrant? History says it's not likely. Then, the tools we have allowed government today can be used against us.

This program, like all the others the Bush Administration has put in place without any oversight, should be subject to established legal procedures for gaining a warrant. It's good for our democracy.