ACLU seeks information about FBI racial, ethnic data collection

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is asking the FBI in Baltimore to turn over information regarding the agency's collection of racial and ethnic data.

Maryland's ACLU branch, along with dozens of other chapters across the country, filed a Freedom of Information act on Tuesday against local and state bureaus of the FBI. The requests come after a 2008 FBI operations guide said agents have the authority to collect information and map so-called "ethnic-oriented" businesses, behavior, lifestyle characteristics and cultural traditions in communities with concentrated ethnic populations.

David Rocah, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, said that kind of broad-based wording opens the bureau up for racial, ethnic and religious profiling, especially in regard to the Muslim community.

"There is a hysteria going on around the country about Muslim community centers that is extraordinarily disturbing, un-American and discriminatory," Rocah said. "It's hard not to see the links between official government action that seem to be premised on the same type of racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes. All kinds of groups are vulnerable."

The FBI has 30 days to respond to the ACLU's request. The ACLU could seek a court order if the FBI ignores it, Rocah said.

A spokesman for the FBI in Baltimore said the agency does not believe in racial profiling but reserves the right to target specific cultures who have been known to engage in terrorist activities.

The 2008 Domestic Intelligence and Operations Guide said the agency has the power to collect, use and map racial and ethnic data to assist in its "domain awareness" and "intelligence analysis" activities.

ACLU representatives said little is publicly known about how the FBI uses this authority.

"The problem is nobody really knows," Rocah said. "The concern is that when you invite collecting information about demographic data as a means of deciding how to allocate law enforcement resources, it seems to be a black-and-white invitation to profiling."

Information requests were filed in 28 other states and Washington.