This morning we saw yet another leak from the infamous whistleblower/traitor Ed Snowden, with German website Der Spiegal reporting that the NSA is gathering data on millions of financial transactions across the world. This financial monitoring network is said to be extremely extensive, and carried out by a special group within the NSA known as “Follow the Money” (FTM). According to Der Spiegal, more than 180 million transactions were recorded in 2011 alone, with this data saved onto a massive database known as “Tracfin”. Der Spiegal adds that more than 84% of this data comes from credit card transactions, with the rest coming from international SWIFT (bank transfers).
No doubt hundreds of outraged bloggers will seize on the opportunity to vilify the NSA once again, but in reality this news isn’t nearly as big as some commentators have already made out. For one thing, the number of records saved in Tracfin is but a fraction of the international banking transactions carried out each day, as a few simple sums tell us:
“The collected information then flows into the NSA’s own financial databank, called “Tracfin,” which in 2011 contained 180 million records. Some 84 percent of the data is from credit card transactions,” according to Der Spiegal.
Assuming that the rest of the NSA’s records come from SWIFT payments, that only accounts for 29 million transactions at the most – in comparison, SWIFT itself confirms that it carried out 17.5 million such transactions every single day in 2011, meaning that whatever makes it into the NSA’s database is but a small fraction of the world’s banking traffic.
Moreover, not only is the NSA’s database actually rather small, its fair to say that the monitoring of financial transactions is perfectly fair game for an agency concerned with spying and protecting the country from terrorists and the like. Follow the money is one of the most useful techniques that spies can employ to keep an eye on, and identify, people suspected of terrorist and criminal activity, and so it’s to be expected that it’ll do so to the best of its ability. If anything, the only surprise is that its collection of financial records isn’t more extensive.
Not that American citizens will be happy that their financial records aren’t perhaps as private as they’d like them to be – and they’re not the only ones, as the spies are also worried about it.
As per Der Spiegal:
“But even intelligence agency employees are somewhat concerned about spying on the world finance system, according to one document from the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ concerning the legal perspectives on “financial data” and the agency’s own cooperations with the NSA in this area. The collection, storage and sharing of politically sensitive data is a deep invasion of privacy, and involved “bulk data” full of “rich personal information,” much of which “is not about our targets,” the document says.”
Nevertheless, the whole purpose of having a spy agency is to monitor, among other things, international finance systems as much as we can, so that we can identify the activities of possible enemies. To this end, the US already has a whole raft of laws in place designed to help authorities do just that. In fact, the US Treasury has long since secured consensual access to much of SWIFT’s international transaction records, as was confirmed by SWIFT CEO Leonard Schrank and former Homeland Security Czar Juan Zarate last July.
The likelihood is that much of this ‘spying’ is totally legal and above board, and we should also note that it’s almost exclusively focused on transactions carried out by foreigners, not US citizens, and so it’s not subject to domestic banking privacy laws. If the NSA was spying on domestic Visa and SWIFT transactions that would be something different, but it isn’t. Moreover, the US even has an agreement with the EU that such monitoring is acceptable, which rules out any of our most important allies’ objections to the program.
What we have then isn’t really much of a revelation at all – all Der Spiegal has told us is stuff we already know about, stuff that everyone expects our spy agencies to be doing anyway, and stuff that’s already governed by various international agreements. So instead of moaning this time, perhaps we should justs be grateful that the NSA is doing it’s job?