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Documents reveal that FBI lawyers were worried about invasive license plate readers

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

Privacy advocates have long raised the alarm about government use of license plate readers. But it appears the FBI itself has had serious concerns over their use and, at one time, was “wrestling over” their impact on privacy. 

Internal documents obtained by the ACLU reveal that, in 2012, the FBI’s lawyers recommended that they no longer buy license readers.

These license plate readers—which local law enforcement also use—can store not only identifying pictures of license plates and locations, but also pictures of an entire vehicle and its passengers.

The ACLU discovered that the FBI likely began using license plate readers without first developing any privacy policy–possibly around or before 2007. In 2012, they were trying to develop one—leading lawyers to request a halt of the program.

The details in the ACLU’s documents are vague, however, revealing little about why lawyers were concerned or when the program resumed. From Wired:

Law enforcement agencies have long insisted that the technology poses no risk to privacy because the readers simply make an image of vehicles and license plates that are visible on public roads and in public parking lots.

But the documents obtained by the ACLU show that the FBI’s own legal advisors were sufficiently concerned about privacy issues to halt all purchases of the technology for a time. A June 2012 email exchange between someone at the FBI and a senior vice president at ELSAG North America, a primary vendor of the readers, shows the FBI was “wrestling with LPR privacy issues” (.pdf) at the time. “Once these issues have been resolved … hopefully this Summer … we expect to be back,” the FBI employee noted. “The program is still growing and we enjoy tremendous field support.”

In a blog post, the ACLU wrote that the FBI’s privacy protocol “remains unjustly secret, as do most all details on the FBI’s license plate reader program.

The newly revealed government records do suggest that the FBI’s Video Surveillance Unit (VSU) has a fleet of license plate readers that it lends to its local field offices. 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.

The technology is also pricey—one prototype considered by the agency cost around $90,000.

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