CIA and NSA May Soon Gain Access to FinCEN

By Kenneth Alan Agee

Soon US spy agencies may have access to a large database of financial data, which includes a vast amount of US citizens’ financial data.  Earlier this month, Reuters was able to see a Treasury Department document that revealed that the Obama administration is planning on giving US spy agencies full access to Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).[1] FinCEN is a “massive database that contains financial data on American citizens and others who bank in the country.”[2] The database is used to fight terrorism and fraud. “Any transaction above $10,000 in value is documented, and over 25,000 financial institutions currently file reports to the network.”[3] Banks are also required to report “suspected incidents of money laundering, loan fraud, computer hacking or counterfeiting.”[4]

Currently, the FBI has full access to the database, but spy agencies like the CIA and NSA only have access to data on a case-by-case basis upon request. The proposal would give them full access to the database, which would allow them to use this data for data mining, which involves combining this financial data with other information they have collected and run it through complex algorithms in order to try to identify individuals whose information creates a suspicion of terrorism or other illegal activity.

This proposal carries with it some serious privacy concerns. First, there is the problem that arises anytime one uses computer-based analysis over human analysis: the possibility of being wrong. A false positive can potentially be of great inconvenience to the accused. Second, as it has become easier to obtain large amount of data, it has also become easy to store such data. This means it is unknown how long these agencies might have access to this data. Who knows what these agencies might be able to gleam from this data the future. Lastly, there is the concern over who else might be able to gain access to this information. The Internal Revenue Services? Other government agencies? Private actors hired by these spy agencies?

Nevertheless, maybe these concerns are worth the possibility for increased security. The US faces great national security threats, and it could be argued that these concerns are minimal compared to the increased safety citizens obtain by relinquishing this data. Regardless, this will likely make many people queasy. Although if you’ve survived the FBI going through your bank accounts so far, could the CIA really make things any worse?



[2] Id.