A 2006 German film, The Lives of Others, created a vivid portrait of what it is like to live in a surveillance state – in this case, in old East Berlin under the watchful eye of the Stasi secret police. PPSA has catalogued all of the ways in which technology and thoughtless (and sometimes malign) government intentions bring us closer to living, if not exactly under the Stasi, to something closer to the panopticon in China.
A broad array of robust surveillance technologies is in use around the country – from drones, to ubiquitous private and public cameras, to purchased data owned and reviewed without warrants by government for insights into American’s relationships, location histories and communications, to the warrantless treasure trove of American data in FISA’s Section 702. All that’s lacking is the will and means to knit them all together, with AI technology to perform the menial task of constant surveillance for its human minders. With the emergence of local “fusion centers” around the country to integrate data, the United States is already well down this path.
But another key element of a surveillance state, also amply demonstrated by old East Germany, was the willingness – sometimes the eagerness – of people to inform on others. Sometimes the informer was a former lover, a disgruntled neighbor, or a coworker with a grudge to settle. The Stasi was always willing to overlook the motivations of an informer if they had something good and juicy.
This is not to say that the decision by financial institutions to volunteer – without any legal process – the confidential banking information of their clients to the FBI makes them Stasi informers or puts us all in Stasi land. Like almost all Americans, banking executives were appropriately horrified by the savage attack on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob on January 6, 2021. Herein lies the danger – many loopholes in the law begin with a real, legitimate public outrage and the need to rectify it. But when major public and private institutions violate their customers’ reasonable expectations of privacy, in a way utterly outside the law, we normalize illicit behavior that can be used again in the future – and stretched beyond reason – for any purpose.
Thanks to the investigations of the Judiciary Committee and its Weaponization subcommittee, we now know that major financial institutions voluntarily conducted a dragnet of vast numbers of customers and gave it apparently unprompted to the FBI and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). According to retired FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst George Hill, banks “with no directive from the FBI data-mined … customer base” and compiled massive information on customer transactions. Any customer who used a credit or debit card between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7, 2021, in the greater Washington, D.C. area, had their personal information swept up and sent to the FBI.
Financial institutions also took an extra step to put anyone who had ever purchased a firearm on the top of that list. Documents obtained by Congressional investigators suggest that the executive branch was brainstorming informal methods – again, outside of any legal process – to obtain even more private customer information from financial institutions.
No matter how heinous the acts of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol, this privately conducted dragnet relied on no law to report to the FBI the personal information of large numbers of innocent Americans with no connection whatsoever to that crime.
Now Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has subpoenaed Citibank for documents and communications related to violations of customer privacy. PPSA commends Chairman Jordan. Big corporations must not arrogate to themselves the ability to violate the privacy of their customers without disclosure or paying a price in the civil courts, as well as in the court of public opinion.
Chairman Jordan and his committee are performing a necessary duty to nip this practice in the bud before businesses of all sorts begin to volunteer to a sometimes over-reaching government the private information we entrust to them.