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US law enforcement has warrantless access to many money transfers

A low-profile surveillance program is raising major privacy concerns.
A person holds cash in his hand next to Western Union signs at a Florida Check Cashing window inside a convenience store in Miami, Florida, on January 12, 2023. - Western Union announced January 11, 2023 it had resumed moving money from the United States to Cuba, more than two years after sanctions forced the US-based firm to shut down operations on the communist-run island. The resumption of money transfer services to Cuba "is currently in a test phase," the company said in a statement, noting that US customers are limited to sending a maximum of $2,000 per day and only from select sites in the Miami area. (Photo by Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP) (Photo by EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images)
EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI/AFP via Getty Images
Jon Fingas
Jon Fingas|@jonfingas|January 18, 2023 1:35 PM

Your international money transfers might not be as discreet as you think. Senator Ron Wyden and The Wall Street Journal have learned that US law enforcement can access details of money transfers without a warrant through an obscure surveillance program the Arizona attorney general's office created in 2014. A database stored at a nonprofit, the Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC), provides full names and amounts for larger transfers (above $500) sent between the US, Mexico and 22 other regions through services like Western Union, MoneyGram and Viamericas. The program covers data for numerous Caribbean and Latin American countries in addition to Canada, China, France, Malaysia, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine and the US Virgin Islands. Some domestic transfers also enter the data set.

The program exists to help agencies collect evidence of fraud and money laundering, as transfer services aren't required to know customers like banks. This has led to busts for drug cartels and other criminals, TRAC director Rich Leber explained to The Journal. The $500 threshold exists to prevent the system from collecting most data for immigrants remitting money to family in their home countries. Money transfer apps like Apple Cash, Cash App, PayPal, Venmo and Zelle haven't provided data to TRAC, Wyden says.

You need to be a member of law enforcement with an active government email account to use the database, which is available through a publicly visible web portal. Leber told The Journal that there haven't been any known breaches or instances of law enforcement misuse. However, Wyden noted that the surveillance program included more states and countries than previously mentioned in briefings. There have also been subpoenas for bulk money transfer data from Homeland Security Investigations (which withdrew its request after Wyden's inquiry), the DEA and the FBI.

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The concern, of course, is that officials can obtain sensitive transaction details without court oversight or customers' knowledge. An unscrupulous officer could secretly track large transfers. Wyden adds that the people in the database are more likely to be immigrants, minorities and low-income residents who don't have bank accounts and already have fewer privacy protectoins. The American Civil Liberties Union also asserts that the subpoenas used to obtain this data violate federal law. Arizona issued at least 140 of these subpoenas between 2014 and 2021.

The Arizona attorney general's office hasn't responded to requests for comment. However, Wyden is already drafting legislation that would bolster privacy for money transfer services and effectively neuter the database. The ACLU, meanwhile, is unequivocal — it says the surveillance system "must be shut down." If nothing else, the findings could draw attention to privacy issues surrounding money transfers.

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US law enforcement has warrantless access to many money transfers