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Is the FBI Engaging in Race-Based Snooping?

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July 27, 2010

What is the FBI up to in your neighborhood? That’s the question being asked by ACLU affiliates in 29 states and Washington, D.C. The answer could be extremely disturbing.

According to internal FBI guidelines in effect since 2008, but made public only a few months ago, the Bureau claims authority for FBI field offices to conduct “domain assessment” investigations in which FBI agents can collect, analyze and map racial and ethnic demographic information in local communities. This includes the location of “ethnically-oriented businesses”, particular racial and ethnic “behaviors,” “cultural traditions,” and “lifestyle characteristics.”

While some racial and ethnic data collection by some agencies might be helpful in lessening discrimination, the FBI’s attempt to collect and map demographic data using race-based criteria for targeting purposes invites unconstitutional racial profiling by law enforcement. This claimed power to collect and map demographic data using race-based criteria is inconsistent with American values and raises serious civil liberties concerns. What businesses and facilities are being mapped by the FBI, and what “behavioral and cultural information about ethnic or racial communities” is being tracked? How is this information being used? Are the racial and ethnic groups targeted in these investigations being singled out for special scrutiny by the FBI? On what basis? What justifies this disparate treatment?

Questions about a policy so clearly fraught with potential for abuse demand clear answers. That’s why ACLU affiliates in 29 states and Washington, D.C. filed Freedom of Information Act requests with local FBI field offices in their states today, asking for details related to their collection and use of race and ethnicity data in their local communities.

“The public deserves to know about a race-based domestic intelligence program with such troubling implications for civil rights and civil liberties,” said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “We hope that the coordinated efforts of ACLU affiliates across the nation will finally bring this important information to light so that the American people can know the extent of the FBI’s racial data gathering and mapping practices and whether the agency is abusing its authority.”

We’ve got questions and we’re demanding answers. We’ll let you know what we uncover. Stay tuned.

TAKE ACTION: Ask your members of Congress to find out what the FBI is doing in your neighborhood.

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