Spiegel today reveals more details about NSA’s “Follow the Money” program, in which it collects credit card information from select geographical regions. In addition, as TV Globo also revealed last week, they are conducting Tailored Access Operations against SWIFT, the international financial transfer messaging system.
The NSA’s Tracfin data bank also contained data from the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a network used by thousands of banks to send transaction information securely. SWIFT was named as a “target,” according to the documents, which also show that the NSA spied on the organization on several levels, involving, among others, the agency’s “tailored access operations” division. One of the ways the agency accessed the data included reading “SWIFT printer traffic from numerous banks,” the documents show.
Now, some caution about this claim is in order. Spiegel reports that NSA’s financial records database has 180 million records, of which 84% are credit card transactions.
The collected information then flows into the NSA’s own financial databank, called “Tracfin,” which in 2011 contained 180 million records. Some 84 percent of the data is from credit card transactions.
Even assuming the balance of the records in the database come from SWIFT, that’s less than 29 million records (in 2011, so assume the number is larger now). In 2011, SWIFT was sending 17.5 million records a day. So whatever makes it into the actual database is just a small fraction of international traffic.
But that almost certainly doesn’t account for the bulk of the SWIFT information collected by the US government. Remember: in addition to stealing the data, Treasury also gets it via a now-public agreement. The former CEO of SWIFT Leonard Schrank and former Homeland Security Czar, Juan Zarate actually boasted in July, in response to the earliest Edward Snowden revelations, about how laudable Treasury’s consensual access to the data was.
The use of the data was legal, limited, targeted, overseen and audited. The program set a gold standard for how to protect the confidential data provided to the government. Treasury legally gained access to large amounts of Swift’s financial-messaging data (which is the banking equivalent of telephone metadata) and eventually explained it to the public at home and abroad.
It could remain a model for how to limit the government’s use of mass amounts of data in a world where access to information is necessary to ensure our security while also protecting privacy and civil liberties.
Never mind that by the time they wrote this, an EU audit had showed the protections were illusory, in part because the details of actual queries were oral (and therefore the queries weren’t auditable), in part because Treasury was getting bulk data. But there was a legitimate way to get data pertaining to the claimed primary threat at hand, terrorism. And now we know NSA also stole data.
Note, too, the timing. While Spiegel doesn’t provide enough details about the exploitation of SWIFT for us to date it, the dates it does provide about this financial spying are 2010 and 2011. That was the period when the EU was trying to put sensible limits to Treasury’s access of SWIFT.
Back when the intelligence community first decided to go after SWIFT data, their first plan was to just steal it.
Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said. But Treasury officials resisted, the officials said, and favored going to Swift directly.
12 years later, they apparently are stealing at least some of it. That probably means they wanted data for transactions that have nothing to do with the counterterrorism application first SWIFT and then the EU bought off on. So there’s the legal access to counterterrorism data via Treasury, and the illegal access to (presumably) some other kind of data via NSA.