FBI Invested in License-Plate Reader Tech Despite Privacy Concerns

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in license-plate reader technology despite conflict regarding privacy concerns, according to newly released documents from the bureau.

The documents were released through a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Although heavily redacted, the emails show internal discussion on surveillance concerns related to the network of cameras that are used to capture and store license plate information.

Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) collect data for law enforcement agencies around the nation. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Fusion Centers this program only adds to the growing list of data collection by the US government.

ALPR’s are used to gather license plate, time, date and location, that can be used to create a detailed map of what individuals are doing. The devices can be attached to light poles, or toll booths, as well as on top of or inside law enforcement vehicles. In 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that the five previous years the Department of Homeland Security distributed over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of license plate readers.

An internal email from June 2012 says that the FBI’s Office of General Counsel was “still wrestling with” license-plate related reader privacy issues. The concern caused an assistant director of the agency to cancel a purchase order based on the advice of lawyers. The heavily redacted email does not reveal what the specific concerns were. However, the emails did make it clear that the program was moving forward. “Once these issues have been resolved … hopefully this summer … we expect to be back. The program is still growing and we enjoy tremendous field support.”

FBI spokesman Chris Allen told the AP that the license-plate readers were being used but “they may only be deployed in support of an investigation and only if there’s a reasonable belief that they will aid that investigation.”

Emails from December 2007 show the FBI’s Video Surveillance Unit testing the system, calling it “very impressive.” The FBI purchased license plate technology from a Greensboro, North Carolina, manufacturer called ELSAG North America. Purchase orders reveal that the technology has been purchased and “deployed to numerous field offices” since at least 2010.

The ACLU applauded the apparent internal discussion but says there are still many unanswered questions. On their blog they write:

“We have no information about the types of investigations carried out with this technology. Have FBI field offices deployed license plate readers to gather intelligence on Arab and Muslim communities? To watch over Occupy or Black Lives Matter protesters? The extremely limited information released to the public does not answer these or many other possible questions.

Automatic license plate readers are a sophisticated way of tracking drivers’ locations, and when their data is aggregated over time they can paint detailed pictures of people’s lives. 

The public has a right to know what information about non-suspects is collected, how long it is retained, whether it is shared with other agencies or departments and for what reasons, and what oversight mechanisms are in place.”

The ACLU has previously revealed surveillance efforts by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) involving license plate readers.

The DEA and the ATF were planning to monitor gun show attendees using license plate readers, according an email released through the Freedom of Information Act. The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the 2009 email which details the DEA’s Phoenix office working on a plan to “attack” guns going to an undisclosed location and gun shows. This plan included the use of LPRs. Most of the email was redacted and did not list what organization was being targeted. As the ACLU notes, “Mere attendance at a gun show, it appeared, would have been enough to have one’s presence noted in a DEA database.” The DEA responded to the emails, stating that the proposal was never implemented.

In late January, TruthInMedia reported on the existence of a federal database being run by the DEA. According to heavily redacted documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act Requests, the DEA has gathered as many as 343 million records in the National License Plate Recognition program.

For more background on how license plate readers work, and the related dangers please check out this article.