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Guilt by Association
Why you may want to reconsider following or interacting with that right-wing party leader.
Financial privacy stands as a paramount bastion of personal confidentiality in our contemporary era. The web of your financial dealings not only sketches an intricate portrait of your very identity, but it also assumes an unprecedented significance given the prevalence of social media, the emergence of cancel culture, and the rise of governments inclined towards censorship. In a disconcerting twist, the data stemming from these transactions possesses the potential to be exploited malevolently, casting ruin upon one's existence should it tumble into the grasp of malevolent entities.
Regrettably, this pivotal realm of privacy has undergone a marked descent over the passing decades. The inception of the US Bank Secrecy Act in 1970, a misnomer which paradoxically spurred banks to amass more extensive client information, marks the beginning of this downward trajectory. Since then, various nations, including the US, have continued to enact fresh legislations that whittle away the fortress of financial privacy.
Governments have sought to legitimize this progressively expanding network of financial surveillance by asserting its necessity in shielding the financial edifice and countering the likes of terrorist funding, money laundering, and sundry unlawful undertakings. What eludes their recognition, however, is the overarching truth that this apparatus corrodes the financial privacy of all individuals, encompassing not only the minute fraction implicated in illicit activities.
A recent episode involving the UK's disconcerting withdrawal of banking services has cast a spotlight on the extensive pervasiveness of this financial monitoring panorama.
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The saga commenced in June when Nigel Farage, the erstwhile leader of the Brexit Party, brought to light a disconcerting revelation. After maintaining an enduring association spanning over four decades, the banking conglomerate he was affiliated with chose to shutter his accounts, leaving him baffled due to the lack of an accompanying explanation.
In the subsequent course of events, Farage unveiled that Coutts was the institution responsible for this “debanking” and he proceeded to submit a subject access request, a legally sanctioned entitlement in the UK that empowers citizens to procure the personal data that organizations possess about them.
The fruits of this subject access request yielded a comprehensive dossier comprising 40 pages, which unveiled the extent of the financial surveillance practices entrenched within the banking sector. This illuminating dossier laid bare Coutts' meticulous scrutiny spanning decades of Farage's historical conduct, undertaken ostensibly to unearth justifications for his debanking.
Farage asserted that the onus for this intrusive surveillance and the consequential debanking rested upon the framework of banking regulations. He specifically spotlighted the regulatory landscape in the UK that pertains to individuals classified as politically exposed persons (PEPs). This designation is bestowed upon individuals occupying notable public positions, rendering them more susceptible to the perils of corruption or bribery.
Financial institutions engage in meticulous client screening procedures, often in collaboration with international data behemoths to execute these processes.
These data giants amass substantial volumes of information about the clients of banks, with some even delving into the surveillance of social media discourse.
Among the notable players in this realm, Refinitiv emerges as one of the largest entities. Nigel Farage, in discussing his own debanking experience, pointed a finger at Refinitiv's data compilation practices. It has come to light, as reported by The Telegraph, that Refinitiv dispatches press clippings and assorted details about clients to institutions like Coutts.
Refinitiv boasts a formidable financial stance, citing revenues of $6.25 billion and a user base exceeding 400,000 spanning 190 countries.
According to research firm Burt & Taylor, Refinitiv and Bloomberg jointly dominate the financial information sector, collectively commanding around two-thirds of the total expenditure in the field.
Referred to as WorldCheck, Refinitiv's client screening service endeavors to gather data primarily if individuals meet specific criteria. However, these criteria cast a broad net, leading to instances of erroneous inclusions in the WorldCheck database.
WorldCheck's foundation rests on information existing within the public domain, encompassing data that is openly accessible and typically disseminated over the internet. This category encompasses diverse elements such as widely circulated media, inputs from reputable news sources and publications, and content individuals share on their websites, blogs, or social media platforms.
However, it is crucial to recognize that the mere presence of information in the public domain doesn't inherently equate to its veracity.
As asserted by legal expert Ben Keith, the existing system suffers from inherent flaws, with databases like Refinitiv's WorldCheck often relying on information that lacks reliability.
Inadequate consideration is given to the credibility of sources, with the emphasis often placed on the sheer volume of information related to a particular topic or individual. Keith, in a piece for Spears, noted that these databases supposedly aggregate data and news associated with potential financial risks, drawing from sources deemed trustworthy. However, his experience underscores the frequent reliance on sources that lack credibility.
Furthermore, the system remains susceptible to manipulation. Political adversaries or business competitors can fabricate false reports with the intention of distorting the information assimilated by third-party databases and credit reference groups.
Instances of incorrect inclusions in WorldCheck are not uncommon. For example, in 2017, during WorldCheck's ownership by Thomson Reuters, activist, author, and public speaker Majid Nawaz found himself added to the database's terrorism category in error. This misclassification led to an apology and compensation from WorldCheck.
According to Vice News, Majid Nawaz is merely one among several individuals and organizations incorrectly labeled under WorldCheck's terrorism category, despite never having faced any charges related to terrorism.
The Farage dossier brings to light a concerning revelation: contentious media reports and unfavorable assessments from activist groups can infiltrate the datasets derived from the public domain, subsequently integrated into platforms such as WorldCheck.
Within this dossier, references surfaced involving labor lawmaker Sir Chris Bryant, asserting that Nigel Farage had received £548,573 from the state-controlled Russian media outlet, Russia Today. Farage vehemently denied this allegation, yet it found its way into the dossier.
Moreover, multiple allusions emerged to a report from the activist group Hope Not Hate, which accused Farage of utilizing elements such as racism, xenophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia to foment discord.
However, the utilization of these public domain datasets constitutes just one contentious facet of systems like WorldCheck.
Ben Keith highlights a significant issue wherein the definition of a Politically Exposed Person (PEP) lacks precision from both governmental bodies and banks. Consequently, a definitive roster of PEPs is nonexistent.
As a result, private data aggregators, relying on information that might be unreliable, contested, or negative, wield the authority to determine an individual's inclusion in the database based on their PEP categorization.
Another dimension of controversy within WorldCheck, and analogous systems, pertains to the incorporation of individuals who are not involved in politics or public prominence. This occurs when someone is designated a close associate of a PEP. This classification extends even to family members who are not politically engaged. An illustrative case involves the daughter of journalist Dominic Lawson, who faced difficulties in opening a bank account due to her grandfather, Nigel Lawson, being designated a PEP. Nigel, a member of the House of Lords and a former UK Chancellor, triggered this classification.
Even family members of individuals who have distanced themselves from politics for years can be flagged based on their association with a PEP. Farage, having exited politics in 2021, revealed that multiple family members encountered bank account refusals or closures.
Upon inclusion in WorldCheck's database, individuals become subjects of comprehensive surveillance.
The breadth of information that WorldCheck can gather is extensive. This encompasses names, aliases, age, date of birth, gender, country of residence, passport particulars, citizenship status, employment and educational information, affiliations both personal and professional, and pertinent financial data related to income.
Individuals added due to their classification as Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) or close associates of PEPs may find their family circumstances information, including marital status and dependents, harvested by WorldCheck.
However, the extent of surveillance doesn't conclude here.
WorldCheck incorporates an "adverse media screening" tool that corporations can deploy to scrutinize "reputational factors" and matters pertaining to Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) practices. Although ESG is often positioned as a positive measure fostering corporate responsibility toward environmental and social issues, it can be wielded against those who deviate from a corporation's ESG mandates.
The Farage dossier exemplifies this, highlighting Farage's misalignment with certain ESG and diversity and inclusion stances of Coote (presumably referring to Coutts) and citing numerous instances where he contradicted the party line by opposing net-zero initiatives.
Data fueling WorldCheck's adverse media screening tool is drawn from a pool of over 100,000 reputable sources, with an influx of more than 50,000 new records added on a monthly basis.
Not only does this banking client screening system place individuals under rigorous surveillance based on data that might contain inaccuracies or be subject to disputes, but those ensnared within this intricate surveillance web also grapple with a series of repercussions.
Foremost among these consequences is the potential for sudden “debanking,” causing them to lose access to a fundamental modern essential, often without any accompanying explanation, a scenario experienced by Nigel Farage and numerous others.
Even those who manage to avoid debanking remain vulnerable to the sharing of their data with third parties.
Furthermore, certain government agencies possess access to WorldCheck's database. Vice News reported in 2016 that entities such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the United Nations, and European Union agencies utilized WorldCheck. Recent records from the U.S. Federal Procurement Data System reveal that several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department, and the Navy, have secured access to WorldCheck through paid contracts.
The looming concern of data breaches cannot be ignored, considering the digital nature of these vast data stores. Notably, the WorldCheck database was previously leaked online in 2016.
Intriguingly, individuals are not notified when they are included in the database; awareness typically only dawns when they actively seek a copy of the data WorldCheck holds on them.
Significantly, individuals featured in the database wield limited control over their own data, further deepening the complex ethical landscape.
While individuals can indeed request adjustments or removals of their data within WorldCheck, the ultimate authority rests with Refinitiv, which retains the discretion to deny these requests if permissible under the law.
However, if the prevailing trend continues, covert surveillance systems like WorldCheck might merely constitute the surface of a much larger phenomenon.
In various corners of the world, procured data is already being harnessed to surveil individuals' movements and monitor their carbon footprints. Governmental bodies are resorting to financial blacklisting of protestors or people who interact with the wrong people, while political figures advocate for the surveillance of transactions exceeding 100 euros.
Influential global entities like the International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum are advocating for the amalgamation of browser history with credit scores and endorsing blacklisting in the realm of decentralized finance.
The pervasive financial surveillance apparatus eerily resembles China's existing social credit system. Under this dystopian digital surveillance paradigm, virtually every facet of an individual's existence is subject to monitoring, intricately tied to a social credit score that dictates permissible purchases. This has culminated in the blockade of train and plane ticket purchases for millions of people.
In the midst of these persistent calls for unending surveillance, Western governments are beginning to openly reveal their aspirations for the introduction of central bank digital currencies interlinked with digital IDs.
These technological mechanisms could consolidate and broaden the current data collection practices, unshackling a surveillance ordeal far surpassing the magnitude of current monitoring protocols. The impending implications pose a considerable and concerning trajectory for the future of individual privacy and autonomy. Some contact’s may just not be worth keeping.
The true power to shape this world has always lain in your hands. Choose well!
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