Hundreds of federal, state and local U.S. law-enforcement agencies have access without court oversight to a database of more than 150 million money transfers between people in the U.S. and in more than 20 countries, according to internal program documents and an investigation by Sen. Ron Wyden.
The database, housed at a little-known nonprofit called the Transaction Record Analysis Center, or TRAC, was set up by the Arizona state attorney general’s office in 2014 as part of a settlement reached with Western Union to combat cross-border trafficking of drugs and people from Mexico. It has since expanded to allow officials of more than 600 law-enforcement entities—from federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to small-town police departments in nearly every state—to monitor the flow of funds through money services between the U.S. and countries around the world.
TRAC’s data includes the full names of the sender and recipient as well as the transaction amount. Rich Lebel, TRAC’s director, said the program has directly resulted in hundreds of leads and busts involving drug cartels and other criminals seeking to launder money, and has revealed patterns of money flow that help law-enforcement agencies get a broader grasp on smuggling networks.
“It’s a law-enforcement investigative tool,” Mr. Lebel said. “We don’t broadcast it to the world, but we don’t run from or hide from it either.” The office of the Arizona attorney general didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said TRAC allows the government to “serve itself an all-you-can-eat buffet of Americans’ personal financial data while bypassing the normal protections for Americans’ privacy.”