Tuesday, November 26, 2013


    "1.  The quality or condition of being private; withdrawal from public view or company;
     seclusion.   2.  secrecy."

     "Privacy is.........the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights 
     and the right most valued by civilized men."

     "Privacy is not simply an absence of information about us in the minds of others; 
     rather it is the 'control' we have over information about ourselves"


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Data and name you can't see

In the couple of months since I sent to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) a data request about an unique tool used by them to do surveillance and monitoring of Minnesotans I have been rebuffed in many ways.  My experience has been one of the toughest I have ever experienced in my many years of working with Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

I made a broad request of DPS about policies, costs, contracts with private company, legal thresholds, and use of this new technology.  The response I got back in early part of October was a two page letter stating that DPS has a cellular exploitative device and the rest of the data is secret.  I got no contract, no cost of device, how much public dollars are being used, do they use search warrants when devices are used, in what specific cases the device has been used in, and what protocols they have to insure accountability.

After this response I spoke with Joseph Newton, Legal Counsel for the Department of Public Safety.  I said I was surprised I did not get more data that I think should be public even at a minimum the contract with company which would include name, the cost of public dollars used, and at least what the legal policies are that the DPS guides itself by.  A division (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) BCA within DPS uses the the cellular exploitative device or devices.

Under normal circumstances when I talk with legal counsel trying to get access to clearly public data I have been generally able to come to some understanding and agreement.  Not this time, Mr. Newton is zealously protecting his client and in my judgement overreaching with his interpretation of law.  But the question remains why Superintendent Setter and Commissioner Dohman are so adamant to not share data that brings transparency and accountability to what their department does?

There is a problem of the DPS/BCA acting alone with this new technology.  The public does not know if search warrants are being used.  Who do they have a contract with in spending taxpayers dollars?  Self-monitoring which it seems the Department wants has a danger of abuse.  In the use of this device by the BCA are they gathering data on innocent Minnesotans?  The public will never know because we cannot have access to public data.

After I received the first response from DPS I sent a more specific request asking again for public data.  I asked to review and inspect data that can tell me the cost, the contract with the company which could tell me the name.  After nearly seven weeks I got the response yesterday.  The response I got is that it costs $732, 000 of taxpayers dollars since 2005 for the use of this cell phone sniffer.  No contract, no name of company, zip.

As shameless as this barrier of secrecy is I am equivalently troubled by the nonexistence of any legal policies or protocols which is the heart of how the public can tell if there is abuse or violation of our privacy and civil liberties by this new technology.  What is the significant check on the use of this technology?

The public has no idea whether the Department of Public Safety in using cellular exploitative devices are rigorously complying with our Fourth Amendment.  And that is the issue.  Should they be able to escape accountability and scrutiny by altering into a government agency outside of the law, to where their power grows and we cannot see.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Minnesota potpourri of privacy and open government

Everyday I learn something in the areas of privacy and open government.  This is done by reading, talking with people, or just having a good nose for what's going on.  I have shared these with you through the blog posts and tweets @richneumeister

Something I am going to try for the first time and which I may do once in a while is share with you some of my experiences, vignettes, and things I learn as I engage in the public venue in a short format. So here it goes:

This I week went to the Ramsey County Sheriff's office to inspect and review a data request I had done. (remember under data practices to look at government data is free Chapter 13.03, subd. 3)  I decided to ask the  records office if I could "inspect" the arrest data of people who were arrested by Ramsey County Sheriff over the weekend.  Immediate response by personnel, "You can look it up online.", there was no terminal available to the public for me to look it up.  Eventually, I was able to review a printed copy after the public information officer of the Sheriff came down.

Are state courts in Minnesota available for the public to go in and watch, anonymously?  My experience for the first time to sit in court for a period of time in decades played differently.  I decided to sit in the misdemeanor arraignment court of Ramsey County the other day.  As soon as I got in the court pew I was approached by a bailiff and asked what I was here for.  Two other people of the court venue asked me who I was.  My answer to to the bailiff was, "Just want to see the administration of justice".  By the way one cannot read the newspaper in court during lull time as the judge herself said "waiting for customers" to appear before her.

This summer I have been making data requests to find out how many administrative subpoenas are issued by various public attorney offices. (administrative subpoenas per state law are done by county attorneys and attorney general to seek records and documents on people in criminal investigations)  Most of the county attorneys and AG cannot tell me precisely how many are issued by them on a yearly basis.  But County Attorney Mike Freeman's office can.  Through 2010-2012, Hennepin County has issued a little over 9000 of these pieces of paper that can easily get personal information on people.  My hats off to the Hennepin County Attorneys office for having a log for easy accountability and transparency for the public.  Here's Hennepin County Attorneys log on administrative subpoenas for 2010 by just clicking on this sentence.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety it seems wants to keep "top secret" the name of the company, the contract, and the cost of public $$$ it costs to either purchase or rent the services of the "cell phone sniffer". This "cellular exploitative device" (KingFish) as Public Safety calls it raises issues of privacy, surveillance, accountability, and transparency and whether police need a warrant to use it.  I made a request for the specific data on October 3, 2013.  I am still waiting for my "data".

Tell me what you think of me doing something like this on a regular basis.  Any items on privacy or open government you think needs attention?