Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use

Examples of government surveillance in our lives never seem to end. Virtually any international phone call or e-mail we make or receive is subject to warrantless electronic eavesdropping.  We have the Transportation Security Administration taking naked scans of air travelers.  The Drug Enforcement Administration is dangling federal dollars in front of state officials as an inducement for them to electronically track and data base medications prescribed by doctors to patients. 

Now we learn federal law enforcement has the ability to track credit card purchases, travel agreements, cell phones and so-called loyalty cards – such as a “Kroger Plus Card” – in real-time and without a warrant. 

A document obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Christopher Soghoian, a privacy blogger, shows how the feds are doing this.  First, the government contacts a credit card company’s security department, then issues a subpoena and a court order for non-disclosure to obtain the records of an individual under investigation; these subpoenas are known as “HotWatch” orders. 

The language employed by the federal agents suggests that law enforcement should ask companies for “[a]ny and all record and information relating directly or indirectly to any and all of the following person(s), entities, account numbers, address and other matters or things specified below.” 

The traditional route of pursuing a search warrant from a judge – the method required by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution — is noted as a possible method of obtaining these records; but the document makes it clear that ignoring Fourth Amendment protections by not obtaining a warrant is the “preferred way.” 

Another troubling aspect of the “HotWatch” program is that it was meant to be secret. The only mention of the program prior to Soghoian’s recent FOIA request came in 2005 when the Electronic Frontier Foundation was engaged in a lawsuit against the federal government’s use of cell phones to track individuals without warrants. 

The government response to EFF noted that “the government routinely applies for and upon a showing of relevance to an ongoing investigation receives ‘hotwatch’ orders issued pursuant to the All Writs Act. Such orders direct a credit card issuer to disclose to law enforcement each subsequent credit card transaction effected by a subject of investigation immediately after the issuer records that transaction.” 

Unfortunately, there is no paper trail available to provide clues as to how often these “HotWatch” orders are used, or for how long; and the Congress has engaged in no oversight of the program.  All we know is it is being used “routinely” in federal investigations. 

If history is any guide, however, abuse is of this program is likely. According to a report by the Washington Post earlier this year, the FBI collected more than 2,000 telephone records from telecommunications companies by invoking a “terrorist threat” that did not exist.  The Bureau was in frequent violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act when obtaining these records. 

In 2007, an internal FBI audit into the use of National Security Letters (NSL) found more than 1,000 violations of the law when it came to collecting data on Americans, including financial transactions. 

The use of NSLs was greatly expanded after passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, and these devices are used with great frequency. Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, notes that the FBI issued nearly 25,000 such letters in 2008.  Information gathered through NSLs is retained by the government. 

“The FBI maintains a vast database that now houses over 1.5 billion government and private-sector records, on the theory that all that data can be ‘mined’ to spot suspicious patterns,” wrote Sanchez in an October 2009 article at the American Prospect on reforming the USA PATRIOT Act; which has been used routinely in recent years to investigate a wide range of matters having nothing to do with terrorism. 

The HotWatch Program is yet another in a lengthening list of secret government surveillance programs severely lacking in basic privacy and constitutional safeguards.  This one puts at risk the privacy of virtually every credit card transaction in which Americans daily engage. 

 -by Bob Barr, The Barr Code

54 comments Add your comment


December 10th, 2010
6:52 am

Interesting, Bob Barr is criticizing something that has developed because of the passage of the Patriot Act. I bet you wish you could get that “yes” vote back, don’t you Bob?

Kroger Card User

December 10th, 2010
7:00 am

If the federal government want to track my grocery purchases, I say go for it. They will discover I lean toward house brands except for ketchup.

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Police State

December 10th, 2010
7:31 am

Welcome to the police state. Everyone has demanded “security” from everyone and everything. Now freedom is becoming a thing of the past and the government wants a report every time you go to the bathroom.


December 10th, 2010
7:32 am

Kroger Card User you should try Publix brand ketchup, it is actually pretty good. :)


December 10th, 2010
7:34 am

Yep you can thank the republicans and GW Bush for all of this, the same republicans that you just voted back into power in the house and just pushed through another tax break for the weathy and big corp America and Wall Street bankers. I mean the repubs are putting Ron Paul in charge of oversight of the FRB who is on record of wanting to abolish it. What on earth are you people thinking when you vote????? The new governor wants to gut school funding at a time when we need to be spending more to educate our kids so they can compete and have a decent future (and of course pay for our social sec when we retire). Its no wonder this country is in such trouble.

Mr Chips

December 10th, 2010
7:43 am

Speaking of ketchup, don’t you think it’s suspicious that Heinz and Hunt’s both start with an H, have five letters, and end with an S sound? Mr. Barr needs to investigate this.


December 10th, 2010
7:49 am

It appears the Democrats want to be Big Brother and know everything we do and the Republicans want to serve the rich and give the rest of us crumbs. Talk about not being able to win for losing!!! If this keeps up look for America to soon be either Libertarian or Socialist.

Pats and Taps

December 10th, 2010
8:10 am

It’s a timely piece. This is the season we remember John Lennon’s murder, the greatest artistic tragedy since Mother Nature took Mozart. The FBI spent a fortune tracking Lennon around New York, at Nixon’s bequest. Talk about an abuse of power. Nixon was Lennon’s Prince-Archbishop.

Barr is correct about one thing: when he warns about skies-the-limit government, he means that some total jackass who doesn’t like you or me personally could use his own power in government to destroy us. Or, more unlikely and more likely a paranoid deduction, one person could subject American subjects to the tyranny of one by using the secret tools that hang from the walls of congress like the implements of medieval combat, (hammers and maces and flails, oh my).

Maybe it’s a not-too-absurd conclusion but does it justify years of a daily meme about a possible civics trajectory toward fascism? Perhaps 911 sent the once-prudent compromises of our liberties past the fail safe point, and perhaps it’s good that one man remind us that the enemy is still us.

Perhaps. But can he give it a rest during the holidays? I wager that he’s preparing some xmas piece about 1984, with some clever tie-in to tyranny. But at least it will be worth reading. Lately, he does, more often than not, amuse, doesn’t he?


December 10th, 2010
8:20 am

Like the metaphor of how to slowly boil the frog. We are the frog and the govt is the boiler. You don’t notice it till it’s too late. Right about now the water feels alright but 5,10,20 years from now it’s going to get real hot and we won’t jump out till it’s too late!

Ravi-The H-1b

December 10th, 2010
8:35 am

apply for Kroger cards in foreign sounding names and drive them crazy :-)


December 10th, 2010
8:45 am

What is most disturbing about “HotWatch” is not that no court order is needed to track credit card use is that “The courts only issue a non-disclosure order to the retailer or credit card company involved, meaning the person being tracked will never be notified of the surveilance. This says that the Judge is in a conspiracy with the law enforcement. That is a strong supposition but that is what it means to me. Like church is seperated from state, judicial should be separate from law enforcement.

I say that if a citizen is being tracked by government authoritities, some time down the road, they be notified about suveilance as to the fact and what was found, if anything.


December 10th, 2010
8:53 am

The dimacrats are a one trick pony, tax, tax, and more tax. Hell Pelosi is holding up a bill until she can tax you AFTER you die. The whole bill so you can be double taxed, why is that? Can any of you flaming liberals tell me why it is OK to double tax money after you die?


December 10th, 2010
9:41 am

Protect the Second Amendment……it may be all that you have left.


December 10th, 2010
10:27 am

Actually FROG, the water is too hot for me and it looks like this administration, in it’s weakness and haste, is turning the heat from medium to high. I never thought that America would start resembling the Soviet Union after the cold war was over. It seems to me America was allowed to win the cold war only for our government to become the very thing we fought against. Instead of the KGB we have the FBI, DHS, and the CIA. Yes, it appears that the CIA is active inside our borders, where they should have no Constitutional authority. The FBI is now charged with “crime prevention” while DHS will not rest until we have pat downs and scanners everytime we travel anywhere. One day we will have to have Passports and Travel permission cards inside our own borders!

And if you think this is crazy talk to your elders and see if they thought that we would have this mess going on back when they were younger.

Larry Flynt

December 10th, 2010
10:53 am

Uh oh Bob…you better watch out for those credit card charges at the Love Shack

The AJC Stinks

December 10th, 2010
11:10 am

Dear Ravi-The H-1b – I already thought of that, my wife and I were checking out at Krogers, when it occurred to me that I could use any name on my kroger’s card. So I said out loud “I should apply for a card in the name of Osama bin Lodin, I bet no one would notice.” My wife hit me and said “don’t be stupid.” Now I might just do that, just to watch the federal pecker heads go crazy! I will use Jim WoodenHeads home address for Osama.


December 10th, 2010
11:24 am

Government is the greatest evil we face as americans. It is folks like Wikileaks that may hold the key to exposing their criminal activities and finally bringing about the change of consciousness in the citizenry that will allow the restoration of freedom this this country. Hooray to everyone that is exposing the criminal behavior of those who infest our political system and our government.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

December 10th, 2010
11:26 am

If I believed the Feds were truly monitoring transaction data for “trends suggesting terrorist activities,” I would have little concern. The history of Big Brother, however, is to target individuals and then to mine data to manufacture a case. Honest prosecutors pursue causes of action, fascists pursue people.


December 10th, 2010
11:36 am

I never registered my Kroger Plus Card. Still get all the perks!

Logical Dude

December 10th, 2010
11:40 am

Ragnar says: Honest prosecutors pursue causes of action

Bob Barr says: more than 1,000 violations of the law

Tell me who’s being honest here????

Ivan Cohen

December 10th, 2010
11:48 am

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Of course the FBI probably instruct their personnel to use throwaway cell phones, to pay for their groceries and big ticket items with cash, to bypass Kroger Plus Cards and coupons. When the net is cast wide it does not make distinctions on who it catches. So members of Congress are subject to Operation Hotwatch. Even George W. Bush is not exempt. Patriot Act? Why not just have an all out “Snitch Act”? Which is really what the Patriot Act is.


December 10th, 2010
12:21 pm

Really–To answer your question: three points—

(1) Most of the money collected by an estate tax was never taxed the first time–most is untaxed capital gains—for example, your father had stock worth 10 million at death, which he purchased for $2 million. Than’s $8 million of untaxed gain. Why should, in effect, the inheritor, never have to pay tax on the gain? (Of course, we have federal estate tax not “inheritance tax,” but it’s about the same thing).

(2) The Estate tax effects a very small percentage of Estates (none this year, but normally 20,000 or so I believe. Of course, there is no Estate tax
when the spouse gets all.

(3) If you are going to collect taxes at all, what’s the most just tax–taking from folks who earn it, or taking from folks who didn’t earn it. I bet a large portion of inherited assets are blown, like lottery winnings–and not to create new businesses.

Always good comedy to see the Tea Baggers voting for the folks representing only the super wealthy.


December 10th, 2010
12:38 pm

I signed up for my Kroger Minus Card under the name “Seymour Butts”.

@Bill: Regarding point #3, I can guarantee you that when trust fund babies and lottery winners (or anyone else) blow their money, it grows someone’s business–or if they just bank or invest it, it gets lent out to also further economic growth.


December 10th, 2010
12:55 pm

Hey Bob, operation “hot watch” is no more than the Patriot Act, which you voted for, run amok! “You reap what you sow”

P. Allen

December 10th, 2010
1:30 pm

Bill –

You are incorrect on #1 – in the example you gave, typically you would inherit stock worth $10 million at fair market value, but you also inherit the $2 million basis. When you sell it you would pay capital gains tax on the $8 million gain. Again, this is the typical situation. In some cases congress has allowed a step up in basis to reduce the heir’s capital gain.


December 10th, 2010
1:38 pm

You are soooooo right Bob. The federal snoopers do not need a warrant approved by the court, however, the court issues a non-disclosure order to the retailer or credit card company involved meaning the person being tracked will never be aware even after the fact that they have been under “HotWatch”. To me, that is conspiracy, that means the citizen at no time is aware of being tracked. Of course they would find out if the case goes to trial, otherwise, it is a lot of “free watching”.

I consider it unconsionable. Our fourth amendment rights belong in the caalog of “most important freedoms.”


December 10th, 2010
1:38 pm

My comments are all getting “washed out.”


December 10th, 2010
2:19 pm

I registered my Ingles card under Hugh Jass. Childish I know and I’m probably breaking some federal statute passed by Congress in the name of the WAR ON TERROR. Every time I see Holder or any of the other USAG in the past decades standing in front of that darned oval plague, it just makes my blood boil. They are about to declare war on one thing or another that’s about to infringe on more of our personal and economic liberties. I’ll take the risk of being blown to pieces by a radical M****m, than to have my civil liberties eroded inch by inch by these wars! I think it’s time we call for a constitutional convention in this country.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julia Adair, Richard Gambrill. Richard Gambrill said: Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use http://t.co/76MobYQ [...]


December 10th, 2010
3:30 pm

Great work, Bob. This is all very interesting, but not surprising. Sometimes with the Obama administration, I feel like we’re in bizarro world. So many things were promised during his campaign and frequently we get the polar opposite.

Your piece above is a perfect example of how Obama’s promise of “the most transparent administration ever” has failed to transpire. And how often did we hear the left complain about “warrantless wiretaps” during the GWB years? We thought we were electing the most articulate communicator of my generation, however what we really got was someone who can’t speak in public without a written script and a teleprompter. Lastly, we were told that his administration would usher in a “post-racial America”, when in fact what we were given is a Justice department that caters to minorities and ignores the complaints of caucasians, thus widening the racial divide in the country even further. If you doubt my last claim, I encourage you to read the article on examiner.com from 9.27.10 titled “Obama Justice Department ignores all voter intimidation by non-whites; proof”.

The AJC Stinks

December 10th, 2010
4:11 pm

Well, with my estate, I choose to take it with me. Near the end, I will buy as much gasoline as possible and use it to create a fountain of flame in a pond on my farm. I will consume all my wealth in burning this flame, even if it takes the last couple years of my life. Oil will become increasingly precious in the decades ahead, so this is how I believe I can inflict the most damage on society, and thumb my nose at Uncle Stupid and its minions.

The AJC Stinks

December 10th, 2010
4:13 pm

Hmmm, maybe I can max out all my credit cards too in buying fuel for my “eternal flame” and die in debt! Max out the mortgages and all forms of debt, yeah that is the idea!


December 10th, 2010
9:35 pm

P. Allen: No. You are wrong. Stepped up basis has long been the rule. I believe, however, for 2010 only (the year with no Estate tax), the deceased’s basis is applicable.

jabster: True. But highly inefficient use of the tax give-a-way. Productivity, etc. increases when money is put to better use, starting businesses, etc.

[...] Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) Now we learn federal law enforcement has the ability to track credit card purchases, travel agreements, cell phones and so-called loyalty cards – such as a “Kroger Plus Card” – in real-time and without a warrant.  A document obtained through a … gas credit card – Bing News [...]


December 10th, 2010
9:41 pm

ronald–what “telepromter” garbage. This was started by rednecks who cant’ stand to see a black guy who’s so well educated and smart. I guess you’ve never seen Obama at any of his many debates and press conferences speaking without a telepromter? Guess Obama used a telepromter while he was a Constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago???

Michael H. Smith

December 11th, 2010
12:07 am

With all the tracking and intrusive watching that is going on, exactly who do tell, is watching the watchers?

[...] Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use | The Barr Code. [...]

Dr. Pangloss

December 11th, 2010
10:18 am

Here’s an idea, Bob: don’t use your credit card at the massage parlor.


December 11th, 2010
10:28 am

The law enforcement is testing the power of law. It is the nature of power always to resist and and evade restraints by law. Law is to curb power. This circumventing having a court order to track credit cards goes beyond the pale. Not only that, but merchants are instructed not to tell the customer that the use of the card is being tracked.

Watching the Watchers

December 11th, 2010
10:45 am

Bob, Michael H. Smith and others — great points. The need is stronger than ever to defend the values (like transparency and accountability) that have long made our country great. And it seems like everyone realizes that both the Dems and Reps are up to their necks in the transformation of America into a country with greater government control bearing little resemblance to the once vaunted leader of the free world.

With the political parties both betraying America, it’s especially important to engage individually, and also to support organizations that are filling the gap. Check out the Bill of Rights Defense Committee — they have a pretty deep action menu, including an online letter to the Attorney General with over 1,200 signers seeking reforms at the FBI.

Don’t get sad, or mad. Organize!


December 11th, 2010
11:10 am

hdhd 6:52 Gov has listened in on America without warrants prior to the Patriot act, this is not new. Just as they did with MLK, gov does what it wants, if they want to wiretap, they do.


December 11th, 2010
11:22 am

Some of you kids have never actually googled “Bob Barr Patriot Act” before, have you?

1st hit–
Reason: Do you regret voting for the USA PATRIOT Act?
Barr: I do. I was hoping at the time that it would not be used as a floor but as a ceiling. But it’s been a taking-off point for expanded authority in a number of areas. Perhaps most important is the fact that the administration seems to be pushing its application as broadly as it can in nonterrorism cases.

2nd hit is his wikipedia article–
He voted for the first USA PATRIOT Act, but only after his amendments adding “sunset clauses” were added to the final bill. Barr played a similar role during the debate over Bill Clinton’s Comprehensive Anti-terrorism Act of 1995, crafting pro-civil liberties amendments to the original text. He now publicly regrets his Patriot Act vote.

I’m no fan at all of Bob Barr. You’re right that he did vote for it. But y’all are embarassing yourselves on a public forum on the points beyond that. Why don’t you do research and come up with a substantive critique?


December 11th, 2010
11:55 am

<<Always good comedy to see the Tea Baggers voting for the folks representing only the super wealthy<<<

Bill, truer words have rarely been written. The Repubs must have a good, long laugh everytime they think about the free ride they are getting from undereducated, lower-middle class Baggers who have no clue about economics and which side they should be on. And it will go on and on as American "Idiocracy" gets dumber and dumber. Yes, Nathan (I Have My Hand Out Already!) Deal, let's cut education funding some more! It earns us more supporters!


December 11th, 2010
12:02 pm

>>>Always good comedy to see the Tea Baggers voting for the folks representing only the super wealthy>>>

Great point, Bill. Truer words have rarely been written. I imagine the Repubs laugh long and hard every time they think about the free ride they have been getting from lower-middle class Baggers with no clue about economics and which side they should be on. And it will go on indefinitely as the American “Idiocracy” continues to thrive and the country gets more and more ignorant. Meanwhile, Nathan (”I Have My Hand Out Already!”) Deal prepares to cut education funding in Georgia even more to help create even more slack-jawed followers! What a country!


December 11th, 2010
12:21 pm

We as Americans should not let our goverment control us this way.We should have them all watched I bet we would get the crooks then!


December 11th, 2010
12:43 pm

In return for getting to monitor my Kroger Plus purchases I think the government ought to send me some coupons.


December 11th, 2010
1:21 pm

Interesting how the domestic spying instigated under Bush Cheney is now considered an offense by the rabid right when Obama’s people do it. Sort of like the national debt that they turned from a surplus under Clinton to over 10 trillion by the time they left. OK for Republicans but a sin for Democrats.
As others have noted, Barr was one of the people who set this in motion and Saxby Chambless got elected by accusing Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet who lost 3 limbs in the war, of being unpatriotic for opposing certain provisions of the Patriot Act. Where was your concern about out privacy then, Bob?
By the way Saxby: We haven’t forgotten how you got out of Nam for a back injury, then went on to play college football. That’s called a draft dodger and you were slimy enough to go after a vet who served and paid a huge price while you went about your life.

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December 11th, 2010
1:22 pm

[...] Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use – Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) Examples of government surveillance in our lives never seem to end. Virtually any international phone call or e-mail we make or receive is subject to warrantless electronic eavesdropping.  We have the Transportation Security Administration taking naked … Yahoo! News Nov 19, 2010 8:31pm [...]


December 11th, 2010
2:04 pm

Glad to see that I am not the only one to point out that Bob’s vote on the Patriot Act helped put this and other horrible government actions in motion. Not sure what sort of penance you need to do to attone for the sins against this country and the constitution, but you might want to get working on them. This blog and your commentary just doesn’t quite cover the damage you have helped do.


December 11th, 2010
2:20 pm

James, in my opinion Bob Barr set in motion the “rule of unintended consequences” by his vote on the Patriot Act. Since Congressman (at that time) Barr voted for the Patriot Act he should at least preface any article that refers to government intrusion with that fact. His vote set in motion a process that is, by his own words, out of control. He had the option to vote “no”, but followed his party rather than his reason. I believe he made a very poor choice in voting yes. The last time I looked when one reaches the age of reason he or she is responsible and accountable for the choices made. So he should stand up and claim that. And, I did read the Wikipedia article you refer to before I made my December 10 post, and I still stand firm on the statement made there.

December 11th 2010 | Rebellion News

December 11th, 2010
11:40 pm

[...] Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use [...]


December 12th, 2010
7:56 pm

Plenty of wise folks knew better and said so when the horrible anti-constitution bills were being put before the house. Congressman Ron Paul for one spoke out and loudly as he always does. There was nothing worthwhile in the Patriot Act that would have warranted its presence for even ONE DAY let alone some period that would “sunset” down the road. Freedom doesn’t come back once taken – at least not in this country. There is no excuse for not standing up for what’s right. Bob didn’t bother to do that and now “regrets” his votes. Well boo hoo. We still suffer as americans. He is guilty certainly of violating his oath to protect and defend the constitution from the domestic enemy that was the Bush/Cheney regime and the republican neocons and democratic totalitarians that were proposing the legislation. One might even go so far as to say he is guilty of treason for his actions but that might be harder to prove. The vote was certainly un-american.

[...] Operation “HotWatch” tracks credit card use – Atlanta Journal Constitution (Blog) Obama spies, freedom dies – WorldNetDaily (Roger Hedgecock) IRS Under Scrutiny After Pro-Israel Group Cries Discrimination – FOX News TSA Gets Up Close and Personal – The New American ‘See something, say something’ campaign expanded to federal buildings – SecurityInfoWatch.com Are You Rapture Ready?: Signs, Prophecies, Warnings, Threats, and Suspicions that the Endtime is Now – Todd Strandberg (Book) [...]