Photo: Shelly Munkberg/Flickr
The huge NSA spying scandals this year have prompted surprisingly little action, even as the government has continually proved to be misrepresenting the scope of the problem. But if privacy concerns aren't enough to stir things up, perhaps hitting peoples' wallets will: a report from Spiegel states that the NSA "widely monitors international payments, banking and credit card transactions," and has its own databases for tracking the flow of money worldwide.
The report is based on documents released by Edward Snowden which show that the NSA's financial group is naturally called Follow the Money (FTM). The documents show that the NSA's financial database, known as Tracfin, has 180 million records in 2011. 84 percent of them were from credit cards, writes Spiegel.
Financial data is an extremely valuable of tracking relationships and movements that otherwise can't be identified, and it really shouldn't be much of a surprise that the NSA—already focused on developing intelligence in every other sphere—would also be tracking transactions. But the scope is incredible. According to Spiegel, a 2010 NSA presentation focused on gaining access to major credit card companies like Visa, with a focus on Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. (Visa told Spiegel that it is "not aware of any unauthorized access to our network.")
Credit card transactions are generally small but location-specific, which means the NSA is perhaps using it to try and track where persons of interest are traveling and moving about. Based on the sphere of focus, that transaction data is likely being collected for counterterror efforts, but how effective can it be? I suppose there's potential in identifying networks based on who's spending money where, yet it's not like one can bankroll al-Qaeda with a MasterCard.
Perhaps more effective—and more worrisome—is evidence that the NSA was spying on the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) system. SWIFT is a secure network for banks to wire each other transaction info, and Spiegel says the NSA was spying on the organization "on several levels."
Spying on SWIFT would presumably provide information on larger transactions and more systemic data, which would likely be more valuable for intelligence operations shooting for major players worldwide. But where is the line drawn? Cracking financial transaction data to find the head of a Mexican drug cartel is one thing, using it to gain a political or economic edge is another.
It's a situation ripe for totally unfounded speculation—is the NSA involved in economic espionage on China?—which is exactly the point. The NSA's actions have broadly eroded the world's fleeting trust in the US government. And following the ridiculous Libor scandal and heaps of other financial misdoings, here's more evidence that the global financial system has been corrupted by more than just shady dealings.
And for what? Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of transactions? Intelligence agencies themselves note that such massive troves of data largely don't concern their targets, and only add to the noise and "going dark" problem agencies like the FBI have used to argue they need more access to data. It all points to an institutional obsession with collecting and hoarding everything that can be, in the off chance that one day it'll be the missing piece of the puzzle. Not only is that mentality leading to the gross violation of millions of people's privacy, it also makes you wonder: How effective can it be?