The Free Press, Mankato, MN


December 29, 2013

Our View: Monitor police snooping with cell technology

Why it matters: Concerns about government snooping aren't confined to NSA spying, but to Minnesota law enforcement as well.

The ongoing leaks from former NSA worker Edward Snowden have cast a stark light on the world of international espionage, with everyone from members of Congress, foreign leaders and citizens focused on how to bring a better balance between the need for security and protection of civil rights.

But it’s an issue that has worked its way into Minnesota politics and law enforcement as well.

Minnesota lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — are asking the state’s top law enforcement agencies to explain how they are using devices that collect and store cellular phone users’ data.

The devices mimic local phone towers to capture data and location information of cell phone users. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has confirmed it has the technology as does the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. The local FBI and U.S. marshals offices have declined to say if they have or use the devices.

A group of lawmakers wants to know more about how police are using the technology and sent a letter to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety commissioner and scheduled hearings next month. The legislators want to know how the devices have been used, how long information is kept and who has access to it.

The Legislature’s interest was spurred by a privacy advocate who learned that the BCA had spent $730,000 on the equipment in 2005 but would not give any specifics on how it uses it.

Certainly the public wants law enforcement to have the latest technology to conduct investigations of people breaking the law. But they also want to be assured that technology isn’t used to sweep in vast amounts of information on law abiding people.

The cell phone technology is the latest concern raised by other tools used by police, including GPS tracking and license plate readers.

Laws rarely keep pace with rapidly developing technology, but lawmakers need to make sure they are overseeing and regulating how law enforcement uses new technologies to ensure that residents’ information is not gathered unless there is reasonable probable cause they have committed a crime.

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