Focusing public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues

EPIC FOIA: Automated License Plate Readers (FBI)

Background

Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) systems employ optical recognition on video images in order to read license plates on motor vehicles. These camera systems can be mounted on motor vehicles, such as police cars, or placed in stationary locations, affixed to the entrances of bridges, tunnels, or other landmarks. The data gathered by the ALPRs can be stored, compared to information in databases, or linked to other applications.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) compares license plates against its National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. The NCIC database provides law enforcement agencies with access to a computerized network of millions of records regarding criminal activity. For the first 30 years of the NCIC system, the FBI operated the database with the accuracy requirements of the Privacy Act of 1974 in place. The Act requires that any agency that maintains a system of records “maintain all records which are used . . . in making any determination about any individual with such accuracy, relevance, timeliness, and completeness as is reasonably necessary to assure fairness to the individuals in the determination.” In 2003, the FBI established a new rule exempting the NCIC system from the Privacy Act accuracy requirements.

In addition to the FBI using NCIC to compare license plate data, 1 other federal agency, 46 states, the District of Columbia, and 33 local agencies have all signed formal agreements with the FBI to use the NCIC database for their LPR programs.

EPIC's Interest

EPIC has been involved in evaluating the privacy implications of license plate readers and informing the public of their privacy implications. ALPR technology is becoming more widespread and can be used to track vehicle movements and thus raise informational privacy issues similar to those raised in U.S. v. Jones.

EPIC's Freedom of Information Act Request

Because of the potential privacy risks posed by automated license plate readers, on June 8, 2012, EPIC filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice and its sub-agencies including: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; The Drug Enforcement Administration; and the Federal Bureau of Investigation among other sub-agencies. EPIC requested the following agency records:

  1. All legal analyses, legal memoranda, final decisions, images, and related records regarding the national LPR initiative in its current or previous forms;

  2. All documentation, including but not limited to guidelines, data retention policies, and training materials, relating to the data collection process, usage, and storage of information gathered by the LPR initiative;

  3. Any privacy impact assessments, privacy impact statements, and protocols performed, both past and present, for the DICE program and the LPR initiative;

  4. Any memoranda of understanding between the DHS, DOJ, or any other federal, state, or local level government agencies, sub-agencies, or task forces in regard to the LPR initiative.

Starting in April 2013, EPIC began receiving a rolling production of documents from the FBI regarding its license plate reader program.

Documents:

First Interim Production

Second Production

Third Interim Production

Fourth Interim Production

Fifth Interim Production

Sixth Interim Production

Seventh Interim Production

Eighth Interim Production