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 has 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.