Open letter to Hennepin County Commissioners about privacy and accountability


Three and a half years ago you approved the receipt of Homeland Security funding ($426,150) for the “Kingfish” device. This is a device the Star Tribune called a “controversial tracking device that can pinpoint cell phone locations even when they’re not being used”. The County is now paying nearly $400,000 to the Harris Corporation for the maintenance of your cell tracking device.

This cell phone sniffing device is now being used and administered by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. There were concerns by some of the commissioners in 2010 about illegal searches, compromising privacy and civil liberty interests, and government surveillance of movement.

Per the Star Tribune in 2010:

“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. “I think it will be helpful to know what all of the standards are,” said Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who earlier this month voted to table the matter”.

In another article by the Star Tribune, Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat said he “still wasn’t sure whether it might be susceptible to abuse or whether it was an appropriate tool for the Sheriff’s Office”.

The Star Tribune continued to state that, “Kip Carver, a Sheriff’s Office inspector who heads the investigations bureau, told commissioners that the device would track only cell phone numbers obtained through a search warrant, and couldn’t be used without a court order. Asked how many times a year the device might be used, he said it could be in the hundreds”.

With the Kingfish and its newer brother, the Stingray in the news, I decided to do a data practices request on the “best practices” used by the Sheriff’s Office, any County Attorney opinions, the guidelines on when and how the device will be used, the standards which Ms. Dorfman spoke about, the results of the use of this device, and also the legal thresholds for when to use it.

I did an earlier blog post on the Kingfish titled: Cell-Phone tracking: Minn cops know where you are with Kingfish The data practices request I asked of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s is included in another post I did describing the Kingfish.

Today I recieved a letter from the Hennepin County Attorney’s office which stated that I am not getting any government data pursuant to my request because the county has chosen to keep all data secret except the contract with the Harris Corporation. I will interact with the Attorney’s office about their letter because I believe there is some data that is public, and their opinion is incorrect.

So who is doing oversight to make sure that all those concerns and discussions that took place several years ago about overseeing this cell tracking device are happening? I am trying to do this as a member of the public who has an interest for our privacy and civil liberty interests. But are you as elected officials doing it?