Emails Prove FBI’s Cynicism over License Plate Readers

Emails Prove FBI’s Cynicism over License Plate Readers

The recent revelation made by The Associated Press, based on emails obtained by them, bring to the fore the fact, that even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was skeptical of the privacy concerns pertaining to the license-plate reader technology deployed by it, for its investigations.

The purchases of the license-plate readers ensued after the FBI's Video Surveillance Unit conducted testing of an automatic license plate system over a couple of days in December 2007. Thereafter, The FBI ordered the equipment from a North Carolina manufacturer called ELSAG. However, the emails obtained now, make it clear that though the FBI had spent thousands of dollars for procuring these readers, it stopped all purchases of the same in 2012.

Automatic license-plate readers were initially deployed so that they could capture the vehicle numbers. This technology that was meant to capture data, was seen as a boon in tracking the location and movement of suspicious vehicles, which aided a broad range of criminal investigations.

However, the reality was a little different. The readers captured more than just license plate numbers, they captured sensitive information about a person’s travels and activities. Privacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) feel the citizens had the right to know what information about them is being collected, for how long it is retained, whether it is shared with other agencies or departments and for what reasons.

What is evident now is that, even the FBI was not completely satisfied with the security intrusions these license plates caused. An email from 2012 reads that the FBI's Office of General Counsel was "still wrestling with" license-plate reader privacy issues and that an assistant director had stopped the purchase based on advice from the lawyers. The purchases were however resumed later.

The ACLU still feels that there are certain unanswered questions, including the extent to which the FBI continues utilizing the technology and for what purpose.

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