FBI Refuses To Let Public Know How Its Drone Usage Affects Their Privacy

from the I've-got-plenty-of-nothing-and-nothing's-plenty-for-[REDACTED] dept

The FBI's production of privacy impact assessments (PIAs) lags far behind its deployment of privacy-impacting technology. From facial recognition software to Stingray devices to its drone usage, the FBI has always violated privacy first and assessed the damage later. In some cases, it hasn't bothered to assess the impact at all, despite repeated assurances to questioning lawmakers that the required report (and it is required) is (forever) nearing completion.

Its biometric database, which pulls in photos from all over the place for its facial recognition software to peruse, rolled out without the required PIA in 2012. Two years later, the FBI is still promising Eric Holder that the PIA will be completed literally any month now, even as it hopes to have the system fully operational by the end of the 2014 fiscal year.

It has supposedly cranked out a PIA for its drone use -- again lagging far behind its first reported deployments in "late 2006." But the public apparently isn't allowed to know how the agency's drone use impacts its privacy. Instead of placing the assessment on its website for public viewing (the default method), the FBI has stashed it behind every shady government entity's favorite FOIA exception: b(5).

Here's the entirety of the "responsive documents" returned to MuckRock.


As Shawn Musgrave reports, the FBI withheld EVERYTHING.
Federal law requires the FBI to assess surveillance technologies for potential privacy and/or civil liberties issues. These technology assessments are typically prepared for public posting and review. When it comes to drones, however, the FBI has redacted these privacy reviews in full…

Even the cover sheets have been withheld. The reviews are recognizable only from their titles as provided on the disc of responsive documents sent in May: “1218644-0 - Drone PIA - Drone PIA.PDF” and “1218644-0 - Drone PIA - Drone PIA-Drone PIA Section 2.PDF.”
While the DOJ does allow for redactions and the withholding of documents for certain reasons ("classified, sensitive otherwise protected information"), it also requires responding agencies to file a document stating their reasons for withholding PIAs. The FBI also withheld this document -- assuming it even exists.

If I was a betting man, I'd say it's going to take a lawsuit to get this assessment released. The government's track record on transparency is horrific, even without the specter of "terrorism" or "drugs" being cited in the FOIA refusal. Since the FBI deals with both, it's a given that it will fight to withhold information that concerns its surveillance programs' impact on the public from the same public whose privacy it's invading. A Privacy Impact Assessment should never be private. While some information will probably need to be redacted, the complete refusal to release this document should be taken as an insult by the public, and as a further indicator of the government's inherent untrustworthiness.

Filed Under: doj, drones, fbi, pia, privacy, privacy impact assessment


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  1. icon
    Violynne (profile), 4 Aug 2014 @ 11:51am

    Of course the FBI refuses.

    Because it's affecting our privacy.

    It's not like any of this should be a surprise.

    Just bend over and get used to it (while the drone snaps a photo of it).

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