Obama Administration Plans to Give Spy Agencies Full Access To Americans' Finances

The Obama Administration has plans to give spy agencies expanded access to a Treasury Department financial database called Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which collects information from banks and other financial institutions.

Reuters has reviewed a Treasury Department document that outlines the proposed plan, which is likely to draw the ire of privacy advocates. The FBI currently has full access to the database but intelligence agencies must make case-by-case requests for information contained in FinCEN, which is comprised of more than 15 million reports documenting financial activity considered suspicious, which may include all personal cash deposits or withdrawals of more than $10,000.

The Treasury plan would give spy agencies the ability to analyze more raw financial data than they have ever had before, helping them look for patterns that could reveal attack plots or criminal schemes, Reuters says. The document the news service reviewed is dated March 4 and it appears the proposal is still early in development process.

"For these reports to be of value in detecting money laundering, they must be accessible to law enforcement, counter-terrorism agencies, financial regulators, and the intelligence community,'' said the Treasury planning document. A Treasury spokesperson said U.S. law permits FinCEN to share information with intelligence agencies to help detect and thwart threats to national security, provided they adhere to safeguards outlined in the Bank Secrecy Act. ''Law enforcement and intelligence community members with access to this information are bound by these safeguards,'' the spokesperson said in a statement.

The move is isn't sitting well with some privacy watchdogs, Reuters reports. It ''raises concerns as to whether people could find their information in a file as a potential terrorist suspect without having the appropriate predicate for that and find themselves potentially falsely accused,'' said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a non-profit watchdog group.

Despite these concerns, legal experts emphasize that this sharing of data is permissible under U.S. law. Specifically, banks' suspicious activity reporting requirements are dictated by a combination of the Bank Secrecy Act and the USA PATRIOT Act, which offer some privacy safeguards.  

The Treasury document outlines a proposal to link the FinCEN database with a computer network used by U.S. defense and law enforcement agencies to share classified information called the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System.

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