Civil Liberties

FBI Was 'Wrestling' With License Plate Reader Privacy Issues, For What That's Worth

Don't get your hopes up. There's no way the feds are passing up this technology.



As of June 2012, the FBI's own lawyers were "still wrestling" with privacy issues raised by the use of license plate readers—the automated cameras that can capture license plate numbers and add them to databases to track people's movements. That's according to internal Bureau emails obtained by the ACLU, which reveal that the FBI temporarily halted the purchase of license plate readers until privacy concerns were somehow addressed to the satisfaction of the Office of General Counsel. The delay was only expected to be temporary, though, and the FBI is believed to have resumed purchases of the systems that "enjoy tremendous field support."

Not that the FBI's qualms could have been more than a speed bump in the path of federal acquisition of license plate readers. The Department of Homeland Security once again plans a nationwide license plate database after public outcry derailed a more ambitious scheme last year. And the Drug Enforcement Administration has deployed such cameras for years along or highways, potentially monitoring the movements of a good many travelers.

The feds long ago embraced their inner Dr. Strangeloves and learned to stop worrying and love privacy violations. So it's nice to know that the FBI has these internal dialogues, but there's little doubt over the ultimate resolution. The FBI emails reveal enormous enthusiasm about license plate reader technology. As the ACLU points out:

the Bureau seems to have invested money in the development and testing of license plate readers made by one manufacturer, ELSAG North American. An undated document explains the need for a less than full and open bidding process for the FBI's acquisition of license plate readers, noting that ELSAG will provide an ALPR system "custom designed for a specific concealment to fulfill an unmet operational need." The FBI's Operational Technology Division "has invested an estimated $400k in labor to design, develop, and test of [sic] ELSAG deployment solutions."

ELSAG doesn't just sell to the feds, by the way. The Greensboro, North Carolina-based company markets to even small police departments. Money shouldn't be a barrier, of course, to buying snoopy tech, so the company notes, "funding your LPR systems is typically the biggest challenge in obtaining them. We hope this information on grant funding opportunities is helpful to your agency."

There's plenty of cash available from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which, as we've noted, love them some license plate readers.