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Fears of card transactions being monitored are overblown

Fred Williams

Concern that the feds are spying on us is rampant these days — but some of the fears are overblown.

“Newly created fed agency aims to monitor 80 percent of credit card transactions,” Fox News reported last week. “Surprise! Add this gov’t agency to the list of ones that are monitoring everything you do,” Catholic Online echoed.

The reports were based on a Washington Examiner article last week that a U.S. agency seeks to “monitor four out of every five U.S. consumer credit card transactions.” The scary culprit? Not a spy agency, but the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The story cited the consumer watchdog agency’s strategic plan as the source of this information. What the strategic plan actually says, however, is that the agency will build a database covering 80 percent of consumer credit cards “at the summary and loan level.” Moreover, the data will be aggregated “such that no information is personally attributable or identifiable.” Monitoring transactions does not sound like the idea.

I called Richard Pollock, the author of the Washington Examiner article. I said his story — which got a lot of attention on social networks — made me think the feds are watching when I charge a drink at Chili’s. But the CFPB document makes it sound like the agency is looking at data above the level of individual transaction — at sorted piles of purchases with the names stripped off, not at individual purchases. “That could be — it very well could be,” Pollock said. He went on to say that we don’t know a whole lot about the CFPB’s data-gathering activity.

Richard Cordray, the director of the CFPB, got a grilling on this same topic last week during a congressional hearing. U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., kept demanding to know how many Americans’ credit cards were being watched by the bureau. Cordray kept trying to say that the premise of the question wasn’t correct. The agency is keeping an eye on what banks are doing, not consumers. To Duffy, that was stonewalling, and he compared the CFPB to the National Security Agency.

The CFPB has been compared to the NSA before, but privacy advocates did not join in the criticism. These are people who are watching out full-time for signs of Big Brother, and they expressed no worry about the CFPB’s activities.

The NSA is another matter. Now there are new accusations that the National Security Agency snooped into credit card transactions outside the U.S. The documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA filched information about transactions in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported.

What does the CFPB say it is doing? A CFPB spokeswoman referred me to the testimony of deputy director Steven Antonakes. Under the Dodd-Frank Act, the bureau’s job is to monitor consumer financial markets and products. Yes, it is collecting massive amounts of data to do that. But it uses the data in summary form, with personally identifying information removed, Antonakes told Congress in July. The data is used to spot trends, not to track individuals’ activities. That makes it very different from what the NSA is doing.

We depend on data collection by the government all the time to monitor inflation, track unemployment and count the population of the country. How many Americans are affected by the U.S. Census Bureau’s data collection activities? All of them, if the census takers are doing their job right. So what?

After Snowden’s revelations, it is easy for people to see a spy under every lamp post. That makes the consumer bureau an easy political target. Until there’s real evidence of snooping though, it looks like just more federal number crunching.

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