Recap: MN Civil Law Committee Hearing on Surveillance and Privacy

Here’s my edited dump of notes from today’s meeting (apologies if any of it is misattributed or incorrect):

Today the State of MN Civil Law Committee convened to hear testimony regarding state and local government use of surveillance technologies.  At issue was how these technologies impact an individual’s right to privacy, and what legislative steps can be taken to allow law enforcement’s use of these technologies while protecting constitutional rights.

The first person to testify was the ACLU’s Catherine Crump.  She prefaced her comments by mentioning that while many privacy issues have surfaced due to the NSA, problems can also arise at the state and local level.  The ACLU is not opposed to surveillance technologies, but recognizes that oversight is required to prevent powerful technologies from being abused.

(While I would prefer that modern technologies not be used to surveil in the first place, this is a perfectly sane position to take.  Being “opposed” to technology is a pretty difficult proposition, since it’s the actual use of technology that can be problematic – it would be like opposing streaming video technology because you watched a bad movie.)

Crump’s testimony was focused on four areas: GPS tracking of vehicles, cell phone location tracking, automated license plate readers, and surveillance drones.  Crump also noted that extended surveillance often leads to the discovery of very private information about an individual, and that 28 days of GPS surveillance was considered a “search” by the Supreme Court.  Previously, searches like this were limited by the cost of technology, but the plummeting cost of GPS technology requires the state to impose additional legal restraints against this type of use.

Crump also touched on some topics related to cell phone tracking.  The first is all carriers store historical data for at minimum one year, and that carriers are willing to share this data with law enforcement.  This historical data is often much more sensitive than current location, since it can be used to identify patterns of activity.

Current cell phone location data is obviously very useful in the event of an immediate threat or crime being committed, and I do not believe anyone is opposed to police using this data.  Law enforcement can also work with carriers to receive what’s called a “tower dump” which consists of a list of cell phones that have recently connected to a particular cell phone tower.  Both these uses of technology require oversight into the frequency these tools are used, who they are used against, and how they are deployed.

In closing, Crump stated that legislation which adds oversight to the use of technology needs to address where future technology is headed.  For example, surveillance drones will likely soon become a part of our landscape, so it’s important to come up with legislation regarding acceptable drone use before they become widely deployed.

Next, Commissioner of Public Safety Ramona Dohman answered a few questions form the committee.  Most interesting to me was that Kingfish/Stingray (cell phone exploitation devices) have been deployed in Minnesota since 2005 – almost 10 years!  Other interesting points made by Dohman (or her assistants – my notes are terrible) was that data collected by Kingfish was not kept, but that it could be – the claim is that this data would not be very useful.  Also, in response to a question, the identities of the specific officers that access data is not available to the public.

Next up was Minneapolis PD Chief Janee Harteau, who stated that MPD does not have any cell phone exploitation technology and does not have any plans to obtain it.  When MPD has such a need, they get a warrant and make a request to the BCA who handles the technology aspect.  When asked why MPD does not contact the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (who also has Kingfish), she could not give an answer – personally, I get the feeling that MPD and Hennepin County Sheriff’s don’t always see eye-to-eye.  Harteau also stated that MPD does not own and drones and has no plans to purchase any drones.    Harteau also was questioned over her department’s policy of keeping license plate reader (LPR) data for 90 days (a time period I consider somewhat reasonable).

St Paul Police Chief Tom Smith was a little more active about stating the benefits of consumer location technology, noting that OnStar could find him if he were in an accident in northern MN, and also touting some of the features of Apple’s iOS7.  He noted that St Paul does not use Triggerfish or Kingfish, and that like Minneapolis, when they need to use that technology, they get a warrant and contact the BCA.  Smith also stated that he and Harteau were both members of the International Association of Police Departments, and that that organization might be able to help draft some model legislation.

After some additional testimony from Olmstead County Sheriff Dave Mueller and MN Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jim Franklin, things got a little more interesting.  Don Gemberling of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information raised the possibility of a privacy and civil liberties board in Minnesota (after keenly pointing out that at one point, George Orwell himself was a cop).  He also cited Judge Brandeis’ dissent in the Olmstead case (“if the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law”) as one reason this board might need to be established, and said that it’s not only the bad guys you have to worry about, but also the good guys who lose control.

Rich Neumeister gave some additional comments, stating that law enforcement has been increasingly trending toward secrecy, and that this trend has been going on a long time.  He noted that even the LPR data took 4 years before it was made public knowledge, and that police in the late 80s used handheld scanners to attempt to listen to phone calls transmitted by cordless phones.  He has also been unable to obtain even the names of the companies that BCA has contracts with.

Last, Deputy Secretary of State Beth Fraser spoke.  She talked briefly about the Safe at Home program, which helps shield victims of domestic abuse from their abusers.  She stated her concern of what happens when an abuser is a member of the law enforcement community, and would like a way for certain data to be deleted that does not have a legitimate use.

Overall, the meeting was about what I expected.  Not a whole lot that was accomplished today, but I am grateful for Rep. John Lesch keeping important privacy issues at the forefront of discussion.  As always, feel free to contact me via email or leave a note in the comments.

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