US Senator calls for probe into law enforcement mass surveillance

Ron Wyden has said that state and local authorities have accessed data collections without court oversight.

US Senator Ron Wyden
US Senator Ron Wyden, seen here speaking in 2021, has been an outspoken advocate for greater accountability in surveillance and national security programmes [File: Mandel Ngan/ AP Photo via pool]

United States Senator Ron Wyden on Wednesday called for the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate federal, state and local law enforcement access to a database of more than 150 million money transfers, citing concerns it disproportionately affects minorities and low-income people.

Law enforcement agencies have routinely accessed the vast trove of money transfer records without court oversight, Wyden said.

The Democratic senator’s office has been investigating the mass surveillance programme for a year and has found that hundreds of law enforcement agencies have access to the money transfer database, which is housed inside an Arizona nonprofit known as the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC).

The TRAC database was created as part of a 2014 money laundering settlement between the Arizona attorney-general’s office and Western Union, a US-based financial services company.

Wyden’s letter to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz also alleged that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and one of its sub-units, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), hid key elements of the surveillance programme from him during a February 2022 briefing.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson did not immediately reply to a request for comment. TRAC could not be immediately reached for comment.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration, DHS and the Arizona attorney-general’s office have all asked for data from money transfer companies and directed them to send data to TRAC, Wyden said.

Western Union, MoneyGram International, Viamericas Corp and Euronet Worldwide are among the companies that have shared customer data with TRAC in bulk, he added.

“This unorthodox arrangement between state law enforcement, DHS and DOJ agencies to collect bulk money-transfer data raises a number of concerns about surveillance disproportionately affecting low-income, minority and immigrant communities,” Wyden’s letter said.

Wyden announced in March that HSI issued custom summonses – a type of subpoena – for millions of money transfer records between Mexican residents and people living in four US states.

Wednesday’s announcement regarding the surveillance was broader than previously known. It listed 22 countries and one US territory involved in the relevant transfers, including Columbia, Bolivia, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Costa Rica and Venezuela.

Source: Reuters