No Warrant required.
If you live in the United States, it may be time to start getting a little paranoid about your credit and debit cards. A document acquired through the Freedom of Information Act by security analyst Christopher Soghoian reveals that law enforcement officers "routinely seek and obtain" information about the credit card transactions of American citizens. No warrant is required- this is all done through a subpoena.
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These requests come with a sort of gag order that prevents the bank from saying anything about the surveillance. 'Hotwatch' orders, by the US Attorney's office admission are "routinely" used. Until Soghoian's FOIA request, there was no other information on this apparently common procedure.
A hotwatch gives the DOJ the ability to look into not only your credit cards, but your calling card and cell phone account transactions. Rent a car? Take a flight? Have a Sam's Club membership? All of these things can be monitored by government agents without you ever learning about it.
One argument against panic is that these hotwatch orders will only go out against criminals. People the DOJ needs to monitor. But one look at the FBI's use of national security letters makes that difficult to believe. These 'letters' are basically self-authorized subpoenas that allow the Bureau to monitor persons of interest without a court order.
Between 2003 and 2006, the FBI issued some 200,000 national security letters. A Justice Department Inspector General audit found that this was an abuse of authority. A staggering 60% of FBI NSLs did not meet the standards of the statute. Another 22% may have been in violation for improper requests.
In 2007 the number of NSLs dropped precipitously, but they've been creeping up again over the last few years. Recently, the Obama Administration added "electronic communication transactional records" to the list of items an NSL may be used to monitor.
But at least we know how many NSLs the FBI sends out (even though the DOJ gets onto them for messing up the count every now and then). That isn't the case with hotwatching. We have no information and no way to get information on how prevalent it is or who is being monitored. Agencies have to disclose their wiretapping to Congress, but not their card-tapping.
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Maybe cash isn't so out-dated after all.