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Bank customers’ financial activities being heavily policed

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Government surveillance of Canadians’ financial transactions are often based on activities that do not warrant suspicion, according to a study at the University of Waterloo.

The research, done in collaboration with the Université de Montréal, further uncovered that bank employees heavily police customers to not only guard against fraud but also to generate information the government wants to see about possible suspicious financial activities.

“These bank employees who are doing policing on behalf of the state depend heavily on their own ideas in concert with the indicators that the banks might be giving them,” said Vanessa Iafolla, lecturer of sociology and legal studies at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the study. “Those indicators aren’t well developed and are not completely specified.

“What you end up getting is people’s individual thoughts and ideas around gender, race, age and suspiciousness influencing who ends up getting reported.”

Thirty semi-structured interviews were conducted with Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada officials as well as chief anti-money laundering officers and related employees in a representative range of Canadian banks. These interviews were directed towards key practices in financial policing and the social representations behind them.

The interviews revealed that the lines between financial activities that are abnormal and those that are suspicious are blurred, as the factors being used are outside the scope of legislation. The undefined criteria for suspiciousness results in false positives with many people unjustly brought under the net of surveillance.

“Part of the problem is that financial entities, such as banks and credit unions, life insurance companies, securities dealers, money services businesses, accountants, real estate brokers, casinos, dealers in precious metals and stones and British Columbia notaries are legally obligated to report under the Proceeds of Crime and Terrorist Financing Act,” said Iafolla. “These financial entities must submit to the Financial Intelligence Unit suspicious transaction reports, electronic funds transfer reports, terrorist property reports, large cash transaction reports and casino disbursement reports.

“Unlike all other reporting obligations, there is no monetary threshold associated with the reporting of a suspicious transaction,” said Iafolla. “It is not a system that allows proper consideration to be given to people’s real-life experiences and contexts.”

The study, Suspicion-in-the-making: Surveillance and denunciation in financial policing, co-authored by Professor Anthony Amicelle of the Université of Montréal, was published recently in The British Journal of Criminology.

About the University of Waterloo

University of Waterloo is Canada’s top innovation university. With more than 36,000 students we are home to the world's largest co-operative education system of its kind. Our unmatched entrepreneurial culture, combined with an intensive focus on research, powers one of the top innovation hubs in the world. Find out more at


Media Contact:

Ryon Jones
University of Waterloo
519-888-4567 ext. 30031

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