Documents released this morning by the American Civil Liberties Union show the FBI temporarily stopped purchasing license-plate readers in June 2012 when its Office of General Counsel was "wrestling with LPR privacy issues," according to an email.
Records released by the ACLU come amid a widening debate about the way these high-tech machines collect reams of data on millions of motorists. Over time, this information can reveal sensitive information on the whereabouts and daily habits of law-abiding drivers.
"The FBI itself appears to be aware that solving these privacy issues is critical to the continued use of license-plate readers across the country, but nothing has been released to the public to suggest that solutions are being implemented," the ACLU said in a written statement.
An FBI spokesperson confirmed Thursday the bureau uses license-plate readers, but said their deployment is limited in scope. "We use them only in support of predicated investigations, and only when there's a reasonable belief it will aid in that investigation," spokesperson Christopher Allen said. He said the bureau has a records retention policy, but it was not immediately known.
Law-enforcement officials say these records can be invaluable for investigating crimes, but across the country, there's little agreement or consistency on how long information should be kept on motorists who aren't under investigation of any wrongdoing.
The Department of Homeland Security renewed a push for a national database of these records earlier this year, proposing a retention limit of five years. Last year, a similar Homeland Security attempt at building a nationwide database of these records was quickly scuttled among concerns over privacy overreach.
By contrast, the state of Maine has a retention policy of 30 days. But at least DHS has since published its intended policy, unlike the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI, which both fall under the purview of the Department of Justice. Like the FBI, the DEA also has not released a policy that governs how license-plate readers are used or how long information is stored.
The DEA does use license-plate readers. Earlier this year, the ACLU obtained documents that showed the DEA considered a plan to monitor law-abiding attendees at a Phoenix-area gun show in 2009. The plan was never implemented, but it highlighted the surveillance concerns brought by privacy advocates.
Although there are few details, similar concerns were weighed within the FBI. A heavily redacted email from June 2012 indicates the bureau's lawyers halted the ordering of license-plate readers from ELSAG, its commercial vendor, amid concerns over privacy.
"The Office of General Councel is still wrestling with LPR privacy issues," the email read. "The reason the AD (associate director) stopped our purchase (redacted) cameras was based on advice from the OGC. 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."
A separate document from 2012 from the FBI's Operational Technology Division notes the agency had invested an estimated $400,000 in design, development and tests of equipment from ELSAG.
The ACLU and others fear that if enough of these records are collected on a given license-plate, that law-enforcement officials can paint a comprehensive picture of a driver's life, gleaning details like where they attend worship services, which doctors they visit and which political parties they support. In 2008, Virginia state police monitored attendees who attended campaign appearances by Barack Obama and Sarah Palin using these devices.
Beyond concerns over individual privacy, the ACLU also says these records can be used to draw connections between people who attend the same events. Concerns are driven, at least in part, by a lack of knowledge on how the devices are used by the FBI.
"We have no information about the types of investigations carried out with this technology," the ACLU wrote. "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."