WASHINGTON – An FBI program that collects reports about suspicious activity in the United States does not have adequate safeguards and leads to violations of privacy rights and to racial and religious profiling, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday.
In a new report, “ACLU Eye on the FBI,” the organization said that its examination of the FBI’s eGuardian system, which collects “suspicious activity” records from across the United States, revealed widespread confusion among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies about what exactly should be collected.
The ACLU said it obtained emails between law enforcement authorities in which some voiced “major concerns” about whether First Amendment and privacy rights were being violated in the eGuardian program and a similar scheme run by the Justice Department.
“These programs give extremely broad discretion to law enforcement officials to monitor and collect information about innocent people engaged in commonplace activities, and to store data in criminal intelligence files without evidence of wrongdoing,” the report says.
Spokesmen for the FBI and the Justice Department could not be reached for comment.
The FBI created eGuardian in January 2009 to share tips about possible terrorist threats. The goal is to allow federal, state and local law enforcement to access data quickly about suspicious activity and people, officials have said.
The ACLU said that federal guidance on the program is so unclear that several state and local law enforcement agencies have not participated because of concerns about violations of civil liberties.
“Without this adequate guidance, what is ‘suspicious’ lies in the eye of the beholder,” said Nusrat Choudhury, the staff attorney at the ACLU National Security Project who wrote the report. “The identification of suspicious activity about innocent Americans that can be collected and placed in intelligence files is left to individual perception and bias.”
Last month, the ACLU’s California office released summaries of suspicious activity reports collected by law enforcement officials, Choudhury said. In one, a police officer reported a suspicious individual in his neighborhood described as “a Middle Eastern male adult physician who is very unfriendly.”
“That report doesn’t reveal any evidence supporting the reasonable suspicion that the person engaged in wrongdoing,” Choudhury said. “But it does reveal bias against people of Middle Eastern descent.”
Emails obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center said last year that it would not send suspicious activity reports to the program. In 2010, an official with the Iowa Intelligence Fusion Center complained that the local FBI office lacked guidance on how and when to use the system.
And a 2013 Government Accountability Office said that even after suspicious activity reports are deleted from the eGuardian program, the FBI can retain the reports for 30 years in another location.
The ACLU report comes on the heels of another highly critical study of the FBI. Last month, in a report entitled “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority,” the civil liberties group said the powers of the FBI have expanded too dramatically over the past 12 years, transforming the bureau into a “secret domestic intelligence agency.”