Group Sues FBI to Disclose Personal-Data 'Warehouse'

Oct. 23, 2006 – The FBI is gathering hundreds of millions of pieces of personal information in the name of fighting terrorism and storing them in a vast, secretive data "warehouse." Last week, public-interest groups went to court to find a way in.

The privacy-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice on Tuesday, demanding the government disclose information on the handling of personal data in the FBI?s "Investigative Data Warehouse." The lawsuit seeks details on the nature of the information collected and what privacy protections the agency has applied.

The EFF filed the suit in federal district court after the Justice Department failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests sent on August 25 and September 1. The complaint alleges that the FBI has not only "wrongfully withheld" records, but also neglected mandatory disclosure procedures. For instance, the EFF argued, the FBI had not issued an official public notice outlining the database and its contents, as required under the federal Privacy Act.

The FBI has not yet formally responded to the EFF?s complaint.

In a speech at a public-safety conference in March 2005, John Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI?s Counterterrorism Division, said the database included "photographs, biographical information, physical location information, and financial data for thousands of known and suspected terrorists."

FBI Director Robert Mueller testified at a May congressional hearing that the Data Warehouse was accessible to about 12,000 users from various local, state and federal agencies working on national-security issues.

In August, Gurvais Grigg, acting director of the FBI?s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, told the Washington Post that his agency maintains the database by consistently vetting its sources and conducting internal records audits. He claimed the database was in "full compliance" with federal privacy laws.

But privacy-rights activists want to see proof. EFF staff attorney Marcia Hofmann said in a press statement, "The public needs as much information as possible to evaluate tools that put our privacy at risk. The Department of Justice must abide by the law and publicly release information about these surveillance programs."