What The Government Knows About Your Money

I’m not big into conspiracy theories and don’t think the government would really find anything interesting about my spending habits or how I use the money I have, but I came across an article by Barton Gellmandid from the Washington Post on msnbc.com which made me feel a bit uneasy about access the government can have to many of my financial records without any cause. The article focuses on National Security Letters and how they have increased by 100 times their historic levels since 9-11 and why you might easily find yourself in their files. Some highlights from the article:

A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.

Now if this information found it way into government records, but then was deleted or put into the shredder when the FBI found out that there was no reason they should be keeping tabs on me, I wouldn’t necessarily like it, but I would be a lot less uneasy than the way the current system is working:

They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.

The burgeoning use of national security letters coincides with an unannounced decision to deposit all the information they yield into government data banks — and to share those private records widely, in the federal government and beyond. In late 2003, the Bush administration reversed a long-standing policy requiring agents to destroy their files on innocent American citizens, companies and residents when investigations closed. Late last month, President Bush signed Executive Order 13388, expanding access to those files for “state, local and tribal” governments and for “appropriate private sector entities,” which are not defined.

So the way the current system is set up, if they send out a National Security Letter and financial information about me happens to be there, not only does the FBI have access to it for life, but it will be shared among government agencies and won’t be destroyed. Again, I’m not much on government conspiracies, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

“Congress has given us this tool to obtain basic telephone data, basic banking data, basic credit reports,” said Caproni, who is among the officials with signature authority. “The fact that a national security letter is a routine tool used, that doesn’t bother me…

Billy said he understands that “merely being in a government or FBI database . . . gives everybody, you know, neck hair standing up.” Innocent Americans, he said, “should take comfort at least knowing that it is done under a great deal of investigative care, oversight, within the parameters of the law.”

He added: “That’s not going to satisfy a majority of people, but . . . I’ve had people say, you know, ‘Hey, I don’t care, I’ve done nothing to be concerned about. You can have me in your files and that’s that.’ Some people take that approach.”

Again, I would be much more willing to take the “I’ve done nothing to be concerned about approach” if I knew my records would be destroyed when they didn’t turn up any terrorist ties. Since this doesn’t seem to be the case, it makes me a bit uneasy…

Two years ago, Ashcroft rescinded a 1995 guideline directing that information obtained through a national security letter about a U.S. citizen or resident “shall be destroyed by the FBI and not further disseminated” if it proves “not relevant to the purposes for which it was collected.” Ashcroft’s new order was that “the FBI shall retain” all records it collects and “may disseminate” them freely among federal agencies…

Ashcroft’s new guidelines allowed the FBI for the first time to add to government files consumer data from commercial providers such as LexisNexis and ChoicePoint Inc. Previous attorneys general had decided that such a move would violate the Privacy Act. In many field offices, agents said, they now have access to ChoicePoint in their squad rooms.

While I wondered how I might by chance be caught up in one of these investigations and my data stored, the article points to a situation that almost anyone could have had their date collected:

The Department of Homeland Security declared an orange alert on Dec. 21 of that year, in part because of intelligence that hinted at a New Year’s Eve attack in Las Vegas. The identities of the plotters were unknown.

The FBI sent Gurvais Grigg, chief of the bureau’s little-known Proactive Data Exploitation Unit, in an audacious effort to assemble a real-time census of every visitor in the nation’s most-visited city. An average of about 300,000 tourists a day stayed an average of four days each, presenting Grigg’s team with close to a million potential suspects in the ensuing two weeks.

A former stockbroker with a degree in biochemistry, Grigg declined to be interviewed. Government and private sector sources who followed the operation described epic efforts to vacuum up information.

An inter-agency task force began pulling together the records of every hotel guest, everyone who rented a car or truck, every lease on a storage space, and every airplane passenger who landed in the city. Grigg’s unit filtered that population for leads. Any link to the known terrorist universe — a shared address or utility account, a check deposited, a telephone call — could give investigators a start….

Early in the operation, according to participants, the FBI gathered casino executives and asked for guest lists. The MGM Mirage company, followed by others, balked…

What happened in Vegas stayed in federal data banks. Under Ashcroft’s revised policy, none of the information has been purged. For every visitor, Breinholt said, “the record of the Las Vegas hotel room would still exist.”

There is a lot more detail in the article and well worth the read for anyone. After reading it I now assume that the government has a lot more information about me than I ever thought it had…

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