GAO Reviewing CFPB's Use of 5 Million Americans' Financial Records

Idaho senator says he's worried about the 'enormous data collection initiative.'

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The Government Accountability Office is reviewing the collection and analysis of credit records by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in response to a request from Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

"The enormous data collection initiative being undertaken by the CFPB is a serious cause of concern for me, and should be for those Americans whose financial and credit data is sent to the bureau each and every single month," Crapo told U.S. News in an emailed statement.

"The GAO agreeing to review the CFPB's data collection practices is a very positive development," said Crapo, the ranking member of the Senate's banking committee. The audit and investigative agency accepted Crapo's request for a probe in a letter dated July 12.

The CFPB aims to analyze the records of 5 million Americans "in a wide range of policy research projects," including "surveys on particular products," according to documents published last month by the pro-transparency group Judicial Watch. Contractors selected by the CFPB "shall provide a persistent consumer identifier making it possible to follow consumers over time," according to one of the documents.

[EARLIER: CFPB Denies 'Warrantless' Surveillance Accusation]

Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, makes remarks after President Barack Obama, July 17, 2013.
Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, makes remarks after President Barack Obama, July 17, 2013.

The agency acknowledges the program, which it says was authorized by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law. The CFPB says individual identities are "masked to preserve confidentiality" and that most of the data is purchased from the company Experian.

"As always, we welcome the oversight of the GAO and will cooperate with any requests," a spokesperson for the CFPB told U.S. News. "The CFPB's data-collection efforts help the bureau to better understand the markets it oversees so we can carry out our job of protecting consumers."

The names, addresses and full account numbers of the 5 million study subjects are withheld from contractors analyzing the data, but the ZIP codes, Census block numbers, birth dates and ages of subjects are recorded, according to the CFPB.

The bureau's research project data is, to critics, an unconstitutional government snooping operation.

[ENJOY: Editorial Cartoons About the NSA Surveillance Scandal]

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton previously told U.S. News the program was a "more direct assault on American citizens' reasonable expectation of privacy than the gathering of general phone records."

Earlier this year Crapo requested information on the program from CFPB Director Richard Cordray. In a May 23 letter Cordray told Crapo, "the Bureau is not engaged in a 'Big Data Initiative,'" saying the bureau uses commercially available data "representing about 4 percent of consumers."

In July 9 testimony before the House Committee on Financial Services, acting CFPB Deputy Director Steven Antonakes said the bureau has "regulations that limit the circumstances in which it may disseminate internally, share with other agencies, or disclose to the public confidential information, including consumers' personal information."

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