ACLU Raises Alarm Over Arizona Attorney General’s Illegal Financial Surveillance Program

New Records Obtained by the ACLU Detail How Arizona Created a Nationwide Surveillance Program to Track Americans’ Money Transfers

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
January 18, 2023 7:15 am

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PHOENIX — Today, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Arizona are releasing more than 200 documents on one of the largest government surveillance programs in recent memory.

According to records, the state of Arizona has sent at least 140 overbroad and illegal subpoenas to money transfer companies to compel them to turn over customers’ private financial data, amassing a huge database and giving virtually unfettered access to thousands of officers from hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country. The database, run by an organization called the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), contained 145 million records of people’s financial transactions as of 2021, and there’s reason to believe it’s still growing.

Last year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) revealed that former Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich, in collaboration with the Phoenix Field Office of the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations, had engaged in the indiscriminate collection of money transfer records for all transactions exceeding $500 sent to or from Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as those sent to or from Mexico, from anywhere in the world. Sen. Wyden’s revelation left significant questions about the scope and legality of this program unanswered, so the ACLU and the ACLU of Arizona submitted a public records request to the Arizona attorney general’s office to learn more.

“These records paint a damning portrait of government overreach,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “The government should not be allowed to abuse subpoenas and sweep up millions of records on huge numbers of people without any basis for suspicion. This financial surveillance program is built on repeated violations of the law and must be shut down.”

The documents obtained reveal the enormous scale of this surveillance program, including:

  • From 2014 to 2021, the Arizona attorney general issued at least 140 subpoenas to money transfer companies, each demanding that the company provide customer records for the next year. Those subpoenas were issued under the same state statute that the Arizona Court of Appeals held in 2007 could not be used for these kinds of indiscriminate demands for financial records. Under state law and the Fourth Amendment, subpoenas are limited to seeking existing records “relevant” to a specific investigation, not the kinds of bulk, prospective demands at issue here.
  • The database of people’s money transfer records grew from 75 million records from 14 money service businesses in 2017 to 145 million records from 28 different companies in 2021.
  • As of May 2022, over 700 law enforcement entities had access to the TRAC database, ranging from a sheriff’s office in a small Idaho county, to the Los Angeles and New York police departments, to federal law enforcement agencies and military police units. The ACLU obtained a list of those entities.

The records also show that the federal government is more involved in the surveillance program than previously understood. One document indicates that the Drug Enforcement Administration sent a subpoena to a payment processing company for customer records, resulting in yet more data added to TRAC. And minutes of TRAC Board meetings explain that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection began funding TRAC’s budget after the settlement with Western Union expired.

“To be clear, the collection of this data is illegal under Arizona law,” said Jared Keenan, legal director of ACLU of Arizona. “The public should be outraged by former Attorney General Brnovich’s disregard for the law and individual privacy.”

The Wall Street Journal also released today an accompanying piece detailing additional revelations about the scope of the program and federal agency involvement provided by Sen. Wyden.

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