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Department of Homeland Security widens its reach

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While the world and the majority of privacy-conscious Americans are rightly concerned with the NSA’s far reaching surveillance, the Department of Homeland Security continues its stealthy encroachment into every aspect of our lives.

For example, the DHS recently announced its new alliances with Western Union, the Department of Transportation and Amtrak. Additionally, the agency is proactively seeking partnerships with private businesses and organizations. In theory, these allegiances are supposed to combat human trafficking. In practice, this is merely a continuation of the government’s FinCEN methodology, wherein just about every financial transaction qualifies for a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR). This approach is no different from the NSA’s efforts to indiscriminately collect every available morsel of information – simply because it can.

Let’s examine the implications of these activities on the privacy of an average law-abiding citizen. You don’t have to be a criminal to end up in the underlying systems of records. Here are some examples of the activities that will likely have your accounts red-flagged and reported to the government:

  • Transactions of $10,000.00 dollars or more are automatically being reported to the IRS in Currency Transaction Reports (CTR), according to the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA).
  • Deposits of less than $10,000.00 dollars may result in a SAR report of structuring/ money laundering, based on your implied intent to evade the reporting requirement to the IRS.
  • Financial transactions at money service businesses (MSBs) in the amount that is less than the $3,000 MSB’s reporting limit are sure to get you red-flagged.
  • If you’re using your safety deposit box often, that may be reported in a SAR.
  • If you rarely use your safety deposit box, that will also be reported as a suspicious activity.
  • If you’re making a cash payment towards the purchase of your vehicle, there goes another SAR.
  • Purchasing anything that costs $3,000 or more and paying by certified checks, money orders or traveler's checks will cause additional reports to be made.
  • Sending your spouse to make a deposit to your account will likely cause the creation of another SAR.
  • Depositing cash or check at the ATM late after work? There’s a SAR for that! Frequent use of night deposit drops or ATM machines for deposits is considered suspicious.
  • Need to purchase a cashier’s check or a money order? There’s a SAR for that too.
  • Helping a friend or a family member by wiring them some money or sending it through Western Union? You guessed it – one more SAR!
  • Writing checks to the same recipient or business on more than one occasion? SAR!
  • Seem reluctant to answer the bank teller’s questions? Suspicious! There’s a SAR for that.
  • Change jobs or modify your schedule? The government considers “sudden, unexplained change in banking habits or activity” another good reason to have you reported.
  • Private sector partners could report your purchases or activities to the Department of Homeland Security, whenever they feel it’s warranted.

One of the worst facts about these reports is that the targeted person or business doesn’t get the chance to explain away those seemingly “suspicious” activities, because the banks are explicitly prohibited from disclosing the very existence and content of SARs to their targets. SARs are also typically withheld during discovery in legal proceedings. Once you are the subject of at least one SAR, that in itself is considered suspicious. The reported number of SARs created during the last decade is 11,447,801. As the DHS continues to form alliances with additional agencies, financial institutions and private entities, the number of suspicious activity reports will continue to climb.

Such reports can cause you to be audited by the IRS, subjected to surveillance or prosecuted, with a very remote chance of ever finding out what caused the avalanche of negative attention from the government.

Speaking of surveillance, the Department of Homeland Security is operating a fleet of Predator drones, equipped for intercepting electronic communications, with the capacity to recognize and identify a person on the ground. The DHS is happy to share its surveillance drones with a host of other agencies, from the FBI to County Sheriff’s Departments. It’s not as share-happy when it comes to disclosing the data as to where these drones are conducting surveillance.

One of the DHS components, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, even considered arming their drones with “non-lethal weapons” designed to immobilize targets of interest, but promptly denied such plans in light of public disclosure. Curiously, in October of 2013 the DHS posted a solicitation, seeking to purchase 100 pepper spray launchers, 240,000 pepper spray projectiles and 36 Less Lethal Launcher Kits. It remains to be seen how the DHS intends to use this “less lethal” paraphernalia.

Expanding its reach even further, the DHS recently partnered up with the NSA, as well as 181 universities to train the next generation of cyber spies, analysts and experts. This certainly provides a new perspective as to the sudden appointment of the former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to the post of the President of the University of California - an unusual choice for a position traditionally reserved for an academic.

The DHS devotes inordinate amount of manpower and funding to surveillance and information gathering, straying far from its stated mission of protecting national security or fighting terrorism. The agency’s waste of anti-terrorism funds on zombie preparedness, sno-cone machines and hog catchers would be laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic. The DHS also tirelessly trolls social media in a self-described attempt to exploit the "narcissistic tendencies" of users to gain unwarranted access to their private data.

To sum it up, the DHS is “all up in your business” and it shows no signs of stopping.

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