Money Laundering, Security and Suspicion-in-the-Making. An interview with Anthony Amicelle

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Anthony Amicelle

Anthony Amicelle is Associate Professor at the School of criminology, International Centre for Comparative Criminology and Montreal Centre for International Studies, University of Montreal. Invited by CERI for a one-year research stay, Anthony answers our questions on his current research and his ongoing projects while staying at CERI and beyond.

Can you briefly present your research path?

I received my PhD (“The European Union in the fight against terrorist financing: issues and usages of financial surveillance”, supervised by Didier Bigo ) in political science and international relations from Sciences Po in 2011. My doctoral research aimed to understand when and how the issue of “dirty money” had become an object of public concern, debate, and ultimately policy, with the rise of dedicated international norms and national laws across the world. To put it simply, I analysed the evolving framing of “dirty money” as a public problem, from the War on drugs to the War on terror and the 2008 financial crisis. Along these lines, I also examined concrete dynamics of financial surveillance and risk-based regulation in the context of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing in Europe, starting with the UK and the City of London. Then I worked as senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), in relation to European projects on the spread of surveillance systems in public and private sectors from the perspective of their impact on privacy and fundamental rights. As professor in Montreal since 2013, I have conducted a range of new fieldworks, particularly on the sociology of international financial scandals—such as the Panama Papers, the everyday policing of economic and financial activities from a national and transnational perspective, as well as the related use of new technologies of surveillance in the digital age.

You have recently published an article dedicated to what you call “ suspicion in the making ”. Would you mind giving us a few hints about what you mean by this concept?

Just to provide some context, the pervasiveness of suspicion throughout society has become a central theme in the literature on policing and security in political science, international relations, sociology, law and criminology, especially with the importance of suspicious activity reporting in counterterrorism policies. In this regard, much has been written about the renewed emphasis on public campaigns urging citizens, public officials and businesses to contribute to national security. Ordinary people as well as corporate sectors have been increasingly invited to become the “eyes and ears of the State” for reporting suspicious behaviors, objects and situations.

However, as I argue in this article, little is known yet about the “suspicion-in-the-making”, that is the day-to-day social processes through which suspicion is produced for denunciation purposes in the name of security. How do social actors—outside the police and intelligence services—conclude that a person, a group of persons, an attitude, a conduct, something is suspicious enough to be reported to State security agencies? Drawing on an extensive fieldwork in North American banks, I shed light on such a production of suspicion in the context of the fight against illicit financial flows. Indeed, suspicious activity reporting has been designed as the Alpha and the Omega for chasing “dirty money” for 30 years. The whole idea of this public policy is based on a monitoring and informant function assigned to major economic actors, starting with banks. They must report certain financial transactions, including those for which they “suspect or have reasonable grounds to suspect that funds are the proceeds of a criminal activity, or are related to terrorist financing”[1]. The article questions three key moments of this process of suspicion production at work in many more law enforcement and counterterrorism areas than the policing of financial activities.

Why has reporting of suspicious activity become “routine work”?

It has become “routine work” in financial institutions because it is literally a full-time job for thousands and thousands of people. Each large bank employs hundreds of staff now, sometimes more than a thousand—from analysts to data-scientists—entirely dedicated to compliance efforts regarding anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing legal obligations. Vigilance against financial suspicious activities is promoted, if not internalized, as a dimension of daily business life in the banking industry. Following this logic, if bank employees—from the counter staff to the operational units—are not suspicious of others, they are not doing their job properly; of course, daily practices are more nuanced and complex and bare numerous tensions. But all of them have to be involved, to varying degrees, in the production process of suspicion from which the final product is the denunciation to state authorities.

Furthermore, such reporting obligations are not limited to financial institutions. They also include casinos, real estate agents, dealers in precious metals and stones as well as lawyers, notaries and accountants. In Canada for instance, 31,000 businesses must comply with the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, and over 25 million financial transaction reports are submitted annually, including 180,000 suspicious transaction reports.

In this same article, you write “the potential adverse impact on reported people has hardly attracted any attention. The common belief is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from reporting practices” (p. 857). Is this something you have or want to explore in your own research?

Yes, it is something that I have explored in my previous research on the unintended consequences of the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing. I questioned the idea that denunciation would be harmless for reported but honest financial customers. As the common argument goes, there is nothing to fear if you—and your transactions—have been wrongly reported for suspicion of dirty money because most of the reports are there to be stored, not to initiate “full blood investigations”. This argument masks several issues at stake, including the increasing trend of “de-risking” strategies across the banking industry. According to the international policy-making body on money laundering and terrorist financing, de-risking refers to the phenomenon of financial institutions terminating or restricting business relationships with clients or categories of clients to avoid, rather than manage, risk. And de-risking strategies as financial exclusion can be enforced based on the suspicious transactions reports, even if reported people have ultimately nothing to hide.

More generally, over the last few years, various studies have shown how banks’ de-risking practices represent a critical issue for the provision of remittance services. Indeed, the trend of de-risking within major banks has constantly grown, with a specific adverse impact on migrant remittances. For instance, in 2013, Barclays contacted 140 UK-based remittance businesses about the closure of their accounts. In 2016, two UK banks were together closing about 1600 accounts per month in the name of risk-appetite [2], including 1000 personal accounts and 600 business accounts. Among the money transfer operators who completed the related World Bank survey in 2015, a significant part declared that they can no longer access banking services. Financial institutions have chosen to limit relationships or even to stop doing business with money transfer operators because remittance sectors are officially considered at very high-risk or ‘too risky’. The impulse comes from big banks but, according to some authors, their decision may cause a “cascade effect” of excessive caution. Ultimately, this may end up with a lose-lose relationship between the promoters of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing and the promoters of the sustainable development goals[3]. If money transfer operators are pushed out of the main banks, they have to find alternatives that may be more expensive for them and their customers— starting with the low-skilled migrant workers and their relatives—and/or less transparent with the unintended consequence of making the formal informal. From this perspective, international efforts against crime and international efforts against poverty and inequalities across the globe are thus inter-related, and both threatened under the present circumstances.

Have you planned to work on a specific research project during your stay at CERI? Are you part of a collective project here at CERI? Would you mind telling us about your ongoing collaborations?

Yes, I am particularly delighted to contribute to the collective work of a research group that is being created here on contemporary policing, with CERI researchers as well as doctoral and post-doctoral students, including Gilles Favarel-Garrigues, Laurent Fourchard, Laurent Gayer, Romane Da Cunha Dupuy, Pierre Labrunie, Lucie Revilla, Sophie Russo, Jean-Baptiste Lanne and Romain Le Cour Grandmaison. I will also take the opportunity of my stay at Sciences Po to start a new research project on anti-corruption policies from a transatlantic perspective. Finally, I am currently writing a book based on my previous 5-year research program. It is provisionally entitled “Capital under Surveillance: Questioning the Policing of Finance”. To put it briefly, the main aim consists in discussing to what extent social order is challenged, re-worked or reproduced in the intersections of economy and security.

Interview & photo by Miram Périer, CERI.

[1] Financial Action Task Force. International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism & Proliferation. Paris, 2019.

[2] Risk appetite is the level of risk that an organization is prepared to accept in pursuit of its objectives, before action is deemed necessary to reduce the risk.

[3] “By 2030, reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent” (UN Sustainable Development Goals). Remittances refer to person-to-person transfers of relatively small amounts of money from one country to another. 232 million migrants were involved in remittance transactions in 2016 for a total of $575 billion, including $429 billion to developing countries. It is more than three times the official development assistance and more than foreign direct investments to almost every single developing country. While the reduction of remittance costs is presented as critical in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, current fees remain far above official targets. This failure is partly connected with the securitization of migrant remittances in the name of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism.