Electronic Frontier Foundation
Thursday, December 23, 2010
What do an online donation to the International Red Cross, a bank transfer to family members living in Vietnam, and a payment sent through PayPal for an expensive rug in Turkey have in common? The government wants to know about them. And, if new rules proposed by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, go into effect, the government will — along with your name, address, bank account number, and other sensitive financial information.
In September, FinCEN, an agency component of the Department of the Treasury, proposed a set of rules (pdf) that would require banks and money transmitters to report to the government any cross-border electronic funds transfer. Yesterday, we submitted a comment (pdf) opposing the agency’s proposal.
Essentially, under the proposed rules, anytime you electronically transfer money into or out of the country, the government wants to know. The proposed rules require banks and money transmitters, like PayPal or Western Union, to submit reports documenting the amount of money sent or received, where that money came from, and where it is going. Depending on the type of transfer, a variety of information would be included in the reports, including the name, address, bank account number, and taxpayer ID number of the sender; the amount and currency of the funds transfer; and the name and address of the recipient. Passport numbers or alien ID numbers could also be required for some transfers.
The government wants reports on all electronic bank-to-bank transfers, regardless of whether the transfer is $1 or $1,000,000. For money transmitters, reports would be filed for transfers at or above $1,000. FinCEN estimates it will receive 750 million reports every year, and the agency wants to keep the data for ten years. Once the reports are filed with FinCEN, other federal law enforcement agencies — the FBI, IRS, ICE, and the DEA — would all have access to the data.
Shortly after FinCEN announced the rules in September, EFF filed a FOIA request seeking documentation that would justify the agency’s law enforcement need for the regulations. We also sought information demonstrating that FinCEN had taken adequate data-security precautions for handling such a massive amount of sensitive information. The agency produced some records, but the documents provided no evidence that the proposed rules are necessary to deter money laundering and terrorism financing, or that the agency had adequately assessed the privacy implications of the proposed rules.
In our comment, we opposed the rules for three reasons:
1. The new reports are unlikely to be effective in preventing terrorism financing — the primary impetus behind the regulations in the first place.
2. While the agency sought the advice of financial institutions, other law enforcement agencies, and even foreign governments when developing the rule, FinCEN never solicited the opinions of privacy advocates during the drafting process.
3. The agency has not provided any evidence that the technological systems are in place to safely receive, transmit, and store the vast quantities of highly-sensitive information the rules would require.
We strongly oppose the government’s attempt to pry into the sensitive financial dealings of citizens, especially when there is no demonstrated need and no evidence that the agency is equipped to handle that much sensitive information. Comments on the proposed rules are due December 29th, and can be submitted here. We urge you to join us in opposing these intrusive new regulations.
UPDATE: The comment period closed on December 29th. You can view the entire docket, including all the comments submitted to FinCEN, here.For further reading:
"Current U.S. Dollar Currency Controls", Trace Mayer, June 10, 2009