08/19/2010 05:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Watchdog Groups Sue FBI Over Ethnically Targeted Domestic Surveillance Program

Watchdog groups filed suit against the Federal Bureau of Investigation Tuesday for failing to make public the details of a domestic surveillance program that uses digital mapping and other techniques to gather information about targeted ethnic populations, particularly Muslim communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in dozens of states, working in conjunction with other watchdog groups, filed a Freedom of Information Act request in July, along with appeals for expedited processing. The plaintiffs sought to determine how the FBI is using what is referred to as geo-mapping to document "ethnic-oriented" behaviors and lifestyle characteristics in communities with concentrated minority populations.

Those requests were met by silence. Now the ACLU of Northern California, the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian have filed suit.

"Profiling and mapping based on race is discriminatory and divisive - it sends the message that the government wrongly sees these communities as suspicious and disloyal," said Veena Dubal, an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus. "It also diverts attention from actual threats, thereby wasting law enforcement resources. Profiling does not make us safer as a country or community."

The FBI has not disclosed details of how it's using Google Earth and other technologies for domestic surveillance, but the FBI's 2008 Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide encourages agents to use digital mapping technologies to compile dossiers on targeted communities.

"It allows us to combine and visually map crime data from a multitude of agencies -- everything from shootings to sources, and from outstanding warrants to open investigations," said FBI Director Robert Mueller in describing the value of mapping technologies to the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2008. "Visual mapping shows us our domain. It reveals connections among our cases we might not otherwise see. And it helps us better manage our resources."

An FBI spokesman told CNN that while the bureau is not targeting specific ethnic groups, each field office is expected to keep track of its community, including information about what ethnic groups are in a particular area. The policy, the spokeswoman said, is an outgrowth of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and the bureau's focus on improving national security.

"The FBI's mapping of local communities and businesses based on race and ethnicity raises serious civil liberties concerns," Michael German, ACLU policy counsel and former FBI agent, said in a statement. "Creating a law enforcement profile of a neighborhood based on the ethnic makeup of the people who live there is unfair, un-American and will certainly not help stop crime."

Watch this video to learn more about the ACLU's action: