ACLU Seeks Records About FBI Collection of Racial and Ethnic Data in Michigan

July 27, 2010

DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today asked the FBI to turn over records related to the agency’s collection and use of race and ethnicity data in local communities.

According to a 2008 FBI operations guide, FBI agents have the authority to collect information about and map so-called “ethnic-oriented” businesses, behaviors, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations.

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, says the ACLU.

“For more than 50 years, the ACLU of Michigan has fought for the public's right to know about government abuses of power,” said Mark P. Fancher, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Racial Justice Project staff attorney. “Today we continue this tradition by asking the federal government to account for the troubling civil rights and civil liberties implications of the FBI’s racial data gathering and mapping practices. Through this effort we hope to finally bring this important information to light and assess whether the FBI has abused its authority.”

The FBI’s power to collect, use, and map racial and ethnic data in order to assist the FBI’s “domain awareness” and “intelligence analysis” activities is described in the 2008 FBI Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide (DIOG).

The FBI released the DIOG in heavily redacted form in September 2009, but a less-censored version was not made public until January of this year, in response to a lawsuit filed by Muslim Advocates. Although the DOIG has been in effect for more than a year and a half, very little information is available to the public about how the FBI has implemented this authority.

“The FBI’s mapping of local communities and businesses based on race and ethnicity, as well as its ability to target communities for investigation based on supposed racial and ethnic behaviors, raises serious civil liberties concerns,” said Michael German, ACLU policy counsel and former FBI agent. “Creating a profile of a neighborhood for criminal law enforcement or domestic intelligence purposes based on the ethnic makeup of the people who live there or the types of businesses they run is unfair, un-American and will certainly not help stop crime.”

ACLU affiliate offices across the nation today filed coordinated Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover records about the FBI’s collection and use of racial and ethnicity data from their local FBI field offices. The requests were filed by the ACLU affiliates in Alabama, Arkansas, California (Northern, Southern and San Diego), Colorado, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia.