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FBI deployed mass licence plate readers despite internal worries

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) deployed mass-licence plate reading technology across the US, despite its own internal worries about the privacy issues of such technology.

Newly released documents, obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under freedom of information laws, show that the FBI used the technology – known as automatic license plate readers (LPR) in several of its field offices, but they also show that the agency temporarily stopped the practice over privacy concerns, The Guardian reports (opens in new tab).

“An email exchange between FBI agents dated June 2012 records that the assistant director of the FBI postponed the purchase of a particular type of camera linked to LPRs after he was advised by his own legal department, the office of general counsel (OGC), of privacy concerns. The document is redacted, thus obscuring the precise nature of the camera, but it does note that the OGC is “still wrestling with LPR privacy issues,” it says in The Guardian report.

However, despite these concerns and ‘wrestling with privacy issues’, LPRs were bought in “limited quantities and deployed to numerous field offices”. An FBI spokesperson confirmed LPRs were deployed around the country and added that they were only used in already active investigations and “only when there’s a reasonable belief that the LPR will aid that investigation”.

There was no general collecting of random licence plate details, nor was such information stored anywhere, he added. However, ACLU believes the published documents give more questions than answers. “As is so often the case, we are left with the feeling that the public should know more about the policies that the FBI has developed – if the agency has guidance relating to privacy concerns over this very sensitive technology, then the public should be told about it,” said Jay Stanley ACLU’s expert on technology-related privacy issues.

Sead Fadilpašić is a freelance tech writer and journalist with more than 17 years experience writing technology-focussed news, blogs, whitepapers, reviews, and ebooks. And his work has featured in online media outlets from all over the world, including Al Jazeera Balkans (where he was a Multimedia Journalist), Crypto News, TechRadar Pro, and IT Pro Portal, where he has written news and features for over five years. Sead's experience also includes writing for inbound marketing, where he creates technology-based content for clients from London to Singapore. Sead is a HubSpot-certified content creator.