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Arizona Attorney General Mayes defends money transfer surveillance program

A spokesperson for Mayes’ defended the program, saying it has been an effective tool in fighting money laundering, sex trafficking, and drug trafficking cases.

PHOENIX — Newly elected Attorney General Kris Mayes of Arizona is defending the use of a massive money transfer surveillance program that allows law enforcement across the country to access millions of financial transactions.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decried the secret database after obtaining records from Mayes’ predecessor through a public records request.

“The biggest question we have right now is how this program could have gone on for so long,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, Deputy Director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “The records we received uncover a staggering scope of mass surveillance by the State of Arizona of not only Arizona residents but of people across the country.”

Late Wednesday, a spokesperson for Mayes’ office defended the program, saying it has been an effective tool in fighting money laundering, sex trafficking, and drug trafficking cases for over a decade.

Courts have held that customers using money transmitter businesses do not have the same expectation of privacy as traditional banking customers. While Attorney General Mayes values privacy, she will continue to utilize this tool to protect the people of Arizona,” said spokesperson Richie Taylor in a written statement.

Since 2010, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office has led a nonprofit entity that maintains a database containing millions of financial transactions of people sending money in and out of Arizona.

The Transaction Record Analysis Center (TRAC) has been funded by the State of Arizona and is currently funded by Homeland Security, according to records obtained by the ACLU.

The ACLU alleges Arizona uses “illegal subpoenas” to obtain wire transfer information from companies like Western Union. The database is made available to thousands of law enforcement officers from hundreds of agencies across the country.

“These subpoenas that previous attorney generals have issued in Arizona clearly violate Arizona law, and we believe violate the U.S. Constitution,” Wessler said.

The director of the TRAC program was quoted by the Wall Street Journal Wednesday saying law enforcement agencies use TRAC’s data to establish patterns linked to criminal activity. 

Still, there’s no evidence police have abused the program. It has resulted in hundreds of leads and busts involving drug cartels and money laundering.

A former FBI agent told 12News Wednesday that although he cannot comment specifically on the constitutionality of the program, he understands why the program is facing public scrutiny.

Americans generally believe law enforcement should have a suspicion of a specific crime in order to investigate an individual’s finances, said retired FBI agent John Iannarelli.

The ACLU alleges the surveillance program can have far-reaching consequences for U.S. residents, particularly members of communities of color, who are disproportionately subject to unjustified surveillance.

“A database of this size that lets thousands of police officers from across the country directly log in and search through people’s private records without any judicial oversight is a recipe for abuse,” Wessler said.

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