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15 Sep, 2013 19:31

NSA ‘Follow the Money’ branch spied on Visa customers, SWIFT transactions – report

NSA ‘Follow the Money’ branch spied on Visa customers, SWIFT transactions – report

The NSA has been widely monitoring international banking and credit card transactions, a new report says referencing Edward Snowden’s leak. The agency targeted Visa customers and global financial service SWIFT and created its own money flows database.

Referring to information leaked by Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee and NSA contractor, German Der Spiegel reports that the surveillance was carried out  by a branch called "Follow the Money" (FTM). 

After the information on transactions was obtained, it was redirected to the NSA's own financial database, called "Tracfin".

According to the leaked documents, in 2011 the database contained 180 million records, with 84 percent of those being credit card transactions details.

Among the millions of records, the NSA's Tracfin’s also contained data from the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). Used to conduct business operations “with speed, certainty and confidence”, this global financial service is used by more than 10,000 banking organizations in 212 countries.

The NSA spied on SWIFT on several levels, involving its "tailored access operations" division, according to the report in Der Spiegel. Reading "SWIFT printer traffic from numerous banks," was just one of the ways the NSA was accessing the information.

One of the NSA’s goals was to "collect, parse and ingest transactional data for priority credit card associations, focusing on priority geographic regions."

According to documents dated 2010, the agency was spying on large credit card companies’ customers, Der Spiegel adds. In particular, the NSA was getting access to transactions by Visa Inc. customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Reportedly, speaking at an internal conference that year, NSA analysts described in detail how the search through the US company's complex transaction network for tapping possibilities was conducted.

Visa Inc. told RT in a statement that “with respect to the claims in the Der Spiegel article” they were not aware of any unauthorized access to their network.

“Visa takes data security seriously and, in response any attempted intrusion, we would pursue all available remedies to the fullest extent of the law,” the statement said. “Further, it’s Visa’s policy to only provide transaction information in response to a subpoena or other valid legal process.”

According to one of the documents, the UK's intelligence agency, GCHQ, admitted cooperation with the NSA to spy on the world finance system. In its report, concerning the legal perspectives on "financial data", it said that the collection, storage and sharing of politically sensitive data was a deep invasion of privacy and involved "bulk data" full of "rich personal information," much of which "is not about our targets." 

Experts warn that government could start profiling people that use alternative forms of transactions such as cash or bitcoin. Financial Advisor Margaret Bogenrief, co-founder of ACM Partners, tells RT that it is hardly surprising that financial companies whose dominance was sponsored by the government share intelligence data with it.

“Do I think that people that are traditionally more suspicious of the government would start using Bitcoin and cash and other currencies like that? Yes, probably,"
Bogenrief believes.

She agrees that raising a red flag once individuals use cash could be another way to “monitor” people. But because of privacy concerns, Bogenrief says, companies who accept cash transactions will not likely share such data with the federal government. “I do not think they will be handing over the information to the federal government any time soon. You would have to see a pretty significant shift in policy and enforcement.”