The Department of Homeland Security has begun experimenting with a wide-ranging computer database that allows investigators to match financial transactions against a list of some 250,000 people and firms with suspected ties to terrorist financing, drug trafficking, money laundering and other financial crimes.
The program, developed by a British company and used in recent test runs at the Department of Homeland Security, gives investigators what amounts to an enormous global watch list to track possible financial crimes at US border crossings, banks and other financial institutions.
"This is something that's shown promise," said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. While the program is still in its trial stage, he said, "it's interesting technology, and it would give us another tool in the box, but there's been no decision made on whether to put it into operation or not."
He emphasized that the software had not been used as part of any criminal investigations or other operations.
David Leppan, chief executive of World-Check, the British company that has provided the database to US officials, said the recent test runs had produced a number of promising hits on people with suspected criminal ties overseas who had entered the US with more than US$10,000 in cash or made other financial transactions in this country that were reported to the government.
The program provides yet another indication of the wide-ranging efforts by US officials to look for new technological tools in fighting terrorism and other international crime. But it also raises privacy and civil liberties questions because domestic security officials are relying on a private overseas firm to provide a voluminous list of people and companies that it considers to represent a "high risk" of committing financial crimes, based on an assortment of public records and data.
"There's a real risk in a situation like this because there's really no accountability," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group based in Washington devoted to privacy issues. "People can find themselves on a watch list incorrectly, and the consequences can be very serious."
Rotenberg likened the trial program at the department to a Pentagon operation disclosed last year in which JetBlue airlines agreed to turn over data on millions of its passengers to a private contractor doing anti-terrorism work for the military. In both cases, Rotenberg maintained, government officials effectively "outsourced" the job to private firms "in order to develop profiles on people and circumvent U.S. privacy laws."
With a proliferation of private companies looking to profit from a surge in national security contracts, he said, "we'll see more arrangements like this, and we're likely to see more and more companies in the dot-connecting business."