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              In this Jan. 4, 2012 photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with Richard Cordray, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Obama has named Cordray as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Cordray’s combative tumble onto the national stage as President Obama’s new consumer watchdog has been anything but typical for the studious, mild-mannered public servant who has occasionally been spotted padding around his office in sock feet. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

CFPB official has no idea how many Americans his agency is monitoring

A top official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could not tell the House Committee on Financial Services how many Americans are being monitored through the agency’s secretive data collection program Tuesday.

This response led some Republican lawmakers to question how seriously the bureau takes privacy concerns.

“It’s inconceivable to me, unless you’re the most dysfunctional agency in the entire world, that you’d come before the committee today unable to answer the very simple questions you’ve been asked,” Florida Republican Rep. Bill Posey told Steven Antonakes, the acting deputy director of the CFPB, at a contentious hearing.

The Daily Caller News Foundation previously reported details about the Bureau’s data mining program, including that the credit card transactions of some consumers were being monitored on a month-to-month basis and that contractors were being paid millions to collect, analyze and store personal financial information.

But when Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy asked Antonakes how many Americans were included in the new database, he had no answer.

“I couldn’t give you an accurate range,” Antonakes replied, prompting an incredulous response from the congressman. Previous reports have put the number of individual consumers monitored by the CFPB at least 10 million.

Antonakes repeatedly stressed the importance of data collection as part of the CFPB’s mission to protect consumers.

“The bureau only effectively supervises markets that it understands,” he said, noting that the massive amount of data collected “enables the bureau to coordinate with other regulators and enact tailored rules based on an analysis of costs and benefits.”

He told Congress that the CFPB paid $10 million to private contractors involved in the program over the last two years.

“We do vet the contractors,” he added, responding to congressional concerns that personal financial data could easily be stolen.

Antonakes assured lawmakers that the approximately 900 million credit card accounts the Bureau wants to monitor — representing nearly 80 percent of the credit card market — would not include any personal information.

“The vast majority of the data we collect is anonymized,” he said, contending that only an individual’s month-to-month credit card balance and interest rate are usually retained.

“We’re looking at individual low-level account info, but we’re not seeking to determine who that consumer is,” he concluded.

But Duffy questioned that testimony, pointing to a contract with a data analysis firm that shows how an individual’s age, postal code and Census block identifier are all included in the CFPB database.

While Antonakes said he was willing to send all documents on private contractor participation to the committee, he refused to provide Duffy with the names of the banks and credit unions giving consumer data to the bureau.

“It’s problematic,” he said of Duffy’s request. “It would impact our supervisory process and it would have unintended consequences for the financial institutions as well.”

Of course it would, Duffy responded, because consumers would be less likely to bank at institutions where they know the CFPB is collecting data.

“You take the data, they don’t want you to have it and you don’t care,” the congressman claimed.

For their part, Democrats on the committee stressed that the bureau should have as much information as possible to prevent another financial crisis.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch excoriated his Republican colleagues for attacking the data mining program.

“You have told these regulators that everything they do must be data-driven,” he said, his voice rising angrily. “Today you’re wringing your hands saying “Oh my God, they’re going after data!” You can’t have it both ways.”

The hearing comes days after Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office requesting an investigation into the Bureau’s data monitoring program.

Crapo had previously asked CFPB Director Richard Cordray to provide information on how consumer financial information was collected and safeguarded, but says he was forced to turn to the GAO after his requests were ignored.

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