Cell-Phone tracking: Minn cops know where you are with KingFish


The Hennepin County Sheriff since the spring of 2010 has been using a device known as the KingFish which can track a cell phone without permission from a provider such as ATT, Verizon, and other similar companies. The Sheriff was able to get this piece of high tech equipment with a Homeland Security grant. The cost for the KingFish was $426,150.

Th Hennepin County Board gave approval for Sheriff Stanek to have the KingFish after postponing at least once because there were questions about legality, protocols, and procedures. There was also discussion ever so slight and minimum in what situations will the “cell-phone sniffer” be used. The Star Tribune did report on the Board’s approval.

If one reviewed the meeting and the documents as I did one would see that there was very minimal information given to the Board on which laws could possibly restrict its use or guide it. Kip Carver, of the Hennepin County Sheriffs office gives oblique comments such as meeting legal thresholds and that they will get a County Attorney’s opinion to help them with their legal standards. But there were no questions as to what those legal thresholds were. The Hennepin County Board voted to get the KingFish in my judgement without much debate and information. Commissoner Mike Opat voted against it.

With it being now over 3 years since Sheriff Stanek got this new high-tech tool it’s time to check to see how Minnesota’s largest county is using it.

The use of the KingFish does in my judgement have some constitutional issues and implications with a recent US Supreme Court decision, United States v Jones. Also even before the Court decision, Minnesota had statutes governing electronic monitoring.

Has Hennepin County Sheriff’s office been following our state privacy laws? How are they making sure they are not violating or even on the borderline of violating our state and federal 4th Amendment rights?

The only document or statement provided about the KingFish before the County Board was the following:

“Cellular Exploitation System (Kingfish) – $426,150
Description: This equipment would be used in the Sheriff’s investigations bureau. The
system acts as a mobile wireless phone tower and has the capability to find, track and/or deny mobile phone service. Acting as its own tower, this device can receive information from all mobile phones that are powered on within a predetermined radius. This allows investigators to gain mobile phone intelligence regarding suspects involved in criminal activity”

In other words, can track cell phones, when they are not being used by you. The KingFish device is its own cell tower, picking up signals from all phones that are turned on.

According to the March 23, 2010 StarTribune article:

“Inspector Kip Carver told the Board prior to the vote that the department is committed to using “best practices” in using the system and that it will seek opinions from the Hennepin County attorney’s office and draw up guidelines on when and how the system will be used.”

So, Inspector (now Major) Carver, to see how accountable the Hennepin County Sheriffs office has been with the KingFish I have submitted a data practices request. Secondly, though I encourage the Hennepin County Board to follow up on their decision of 2010 with some tough questions as to whether or not the KingFish is “fishing” legally or illegally, or on the borderline.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension also has a KingFish, the same questions and oversight should be asked of that agency.