Is the NSA Spying on Your International Payments?

With cross-border transactions growing at an incredibly rapid rate, the question of secure payments has become a pressing issue for those who work in the payments industry, as well as among the consumers they represent.

While most online payments companies and banks assure their users that all payments are secure, this isn’t entirely true. Large government agencies, such as the NSA (National Security Agency), have the ability to track international payments – meaning they weren’t quite as secure as we thought.

Since the revelations from several whistleblowers about NSA data collection came to light a few years ago, it’s important to take a closer look at this disturbing trend.

So, is the NSA spying on international payments?

According to data released by Edward Snowden of WikiLeaks, yes, the NSA is spying on international payments. It was alleged in reports released by Snowden that the NSA has been tracking international payments primarily made by credit card users. In fact, roughly 84% of the data they had collected on international payments was from various credit card records.

The report states that the NSA specifically targets large credit card companies, such as Visa, to gather this information. The NSA came out and confirmed these allegations, saying they use large credit card companies and focus on data mining for transactions made in target areas. Of course, companies like Visa were concerned and released statements saying they had no knowledge of unauthorized access and prioritized protecting the data security of their customers.

“Follow the Money”

The department of the NSA that tracks international payments industry is allegedly called “Follow the Money.” Their primary objective is to flag large international payments and tag them for potential ties to international terrorism. The report lists financial transfers as an “Achilles’ heel” for international terrorist organizations. After all, every organization needs funding to run effectively, and yet these transactions appear to be entirely trackable by the government.

Naturally, the NSA claims that their involvement is essential for tracking down dangerous terrorists who have the potential to harm people and nations around the world. However, it also has served to justify a broad-stroke breach of data security and privacy. The credit card companies have noticed this dilemma. After all, if they can’t protect their customers’ data from government agencies, can they protect the data from general hackers interested in large payment information? Obviously, this raises concerns for both the credit card companies and users alike. However, the problem is deeper than this simple surface level of data security or customer privacy.

Is this legal?

The legality of this so-called spying is a bit of a gray area. Many credit card users have strong objections to financial surveillance, while credit card companies are concerned about data breaches during activities that intelligence services are performing. Meanwhile, some government officials and privacy advocates have raised legality and morality questions surrounding the issue of these investigations.

When a government agency like the NSA collects such a large pool of data to pull information from, they are potentially in violation of a variety of national laws on cybersecurity and data privacy as well as several international agreements. Furthering this concern, should the NSA share any of this data, it would be classified as sharing sensitive data with other nations – which could cause other myriad legal and political issues.

Other legitimate problems with this practice involve violating agreements that the US has made with the EU about data security and the protection of private information. Of course, all this information was released years ago and we are still experiencing the fallout. No clear resolutions have been made, and tensions between the NSA and other foreign security entities are still notable even as the scope of international cooperation has been revealed through the Five Eyes program. Ultimately, the privacy of millions of people was breached by the NSA. However, there is potentially some good news.

What does this mean for you?

Even though this financial data was mined by the NSA for the purpose of determining what international payments or transactions should be flagged for heightened risk, the question remains if the NSA can hold onto this information indefinitely. Moreover, financial institutions are constantly changing their data security, and each individual person’s security encryption is also increasing as more advanced methods of cybersecurity and data protection are introduced to financial organizations, credit card companies, and personal computing.

Cybersecurity is rapidly becoming a hot topic around the world as new revelations come to light almost daily about violations from hackers as well as government. This is sure to spur increased levels of security for financial institutions, as well as across a variety of industries. It also spurs the use of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

It remains to be seen how assertive people will become in demanding privacy protections as they learn more about sweeping data collection, analysis and breaches.  It might prove difficult for the NSA to retain the ability to probe financial institutions and their customers so easily amid an awakened public that actively takes precautions to protect themselves from sweeping data collection and privacy invasion.

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