Capitol Hill and the media have found their shiny object of the month – the NSA’s spying program. But as Senator Rand Paul rails against the NSA’s program, the media ignores and the public remains largely in the dark about another domestic spying operation that exceeds the NSA’s in both size and scope. Since 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been collecting data on Americans and monitoring at least 60 percent of the credit card and transaction records of the American public.
While the NSA program identified who you called and when, the CFPB’s program is much more invasive. It allows the Bureau to know where and how you spend every single penny on credit. While the country is fixated on a program that collects phone call information, the secretive CFPB (that few even know exists) has been procuring nearly one billion credit card records of American consumers.
There is no congressional oversight of this program and the head of the CFPB has provided little explanation about the reason behind the massive invasion of consumer privacy, except to say that they don’t intend to stop.
The credit card data collected by the CFPB is being used by the government to track Americans’ spending habits and learn where, how, and how often you buy products or services. The CFPB has admitted that this program currently exists and that they are, and will continue to, use the data to regulate businesses and consumer access to products.
To understand the threat of this program, it is important to understand the CFPB. The Bureau was created in the Dodd-Frank Act to fight fraud in the financial system. In the six short years since its inception, the CFPB has expanded its original purpose without consent or oversight from Congress. Instead of protecting consumers from fraud, the Bureau has pursued policies that have taken away consumer choice. Serving, instead, to protect consumers from themselves.
The CFPB is the single most powerful, least transparent, and least accountable federal agency in all of Washington. The Bureau operates unlike any other agency; outside of congressional oversight, outside of the congressional appropriations process, and led by a single, unaccountable political appointee who has unprecedented power to control the financial markets through his unique authority to act as judge, jury and executioner. It is one of the only agencies that can investigate, regulate, and enter judgment against a company or an entire industry, all within its own walls.
While it is arguably the most powerful agency in Washington, the media and many Members of Congress turn a blind eye to the impact it is having on privacy and our freedoms. That type of unchecked bureaucratic power is exactly what the framers of the Constitution tried to guard against when they created the three branches of government. With the creation of the CFPB, the system of checks and balances, as it pertains to the regulation of the financial services industry, has been destroyed.
When it comes to the Bureau’s data collection program, consumers have not been afforded the opportunity to consent to their credit data being collected. CFPB Director Cordray has admitted that there is no “opt-out” function of this program. In response to questions about obtaining consumer consent posed by Congressman Sean Duffy (R-WI), Director Cordray stated that it would be impossible to collect the data if they had to ask consumers for permission to access it.
It should come as no surprise that, if given the choice, most consumers would not consent to granting the federal government access to the most intimate details of their spending habits and family finances. In today’s Washington, the CFPB simply responds to this by choosing to ignore the consumer and eviscerate their privacy.
Beyond the obvious constitutional violations of this program, the issue of data security should have everyone, including Members of Congress, very concerned. One needs to look no further than to the IRS’s most recent data security breach. The federal government’s inability to secure sensitive data should be an indication that this information is at serious risk. Director Cordray has refused to guarantee that the information collected by the CFPB is secure.
Bipartisan objections to the NSA surveillance program center around the 4th Amendment, and those same objectors now have the opportunity to focus on a potentially more dangerous and invasive threat to the privacy of the American people. Both sides of the aisle must come together to stop the CFPB data collection program and require the CFPB to destroy the nearly one billion credit card records they have already collected.
Brian J. Wise is the senior adviser to the U.S. Consumer Coalition (www.USConsumers.org).