Dragnet

A new computer database system called CriMNet is supposed to revolutionize crime fighting in Minnesota. Cops, politicians, big business, and the media love it.

"My CEO asked me to look into it, and asked, 'Isn't there something we can do?'" Garvis recalls. Since then, the company has assumed a quasi-official role in the push to build CriMNet. It has supplied technical advice, lobbied legislators, and even hired the public relations firm Himle Horner to write newspaper opinion pieces. Target's motives? Entirely altruistic, says Garvis. "This is just a broadening of our corporate philanthropy," he says. "There's no parochial interest for Target in doing something like this. Our interest is that it's good for our communities, and that we'll all gain by having safer communities. There's no business rationale behind our activities here."

That's open to debate. For big employers like Target, CriMNet offers a potentially invaluable resource: access to faster and much more comprehensive criminal background checks. For retailers, knowing whether or not a prospective employee has a history of theft or other crimes is surely useful information. Criminal history checks have become a routine procedure in many sectors of the economy now. And with reason. In a nationwide study conducted by the University of Florida in 2001, employee theft was found to be the single largest cause of "inventory shrinkage" among major retailers. The study, which surveyed some 120 businesses, estimated annual losses from employee theft at approximately $15 billion. (Shoplifters, for their part, caused some $10 billion in losses.)

But retailers and other big employers are hardly the only private-sector entities that stand to benefit from better access to more detailed and complete criminal histories. Landlords, for instance, routinely contract with screening companies to check into the backgrounds of prospective tenants. Such companies draw on many different databases, including credit bureau reports, and develop their own databases of problem renters and kindred undesirables. But the BCA background check is the best single source of information for agencies in Minnesota, according to Lee Michaelson, vice president of the Twin Cities-based Rental Research Services. Access to an improved and more complete criminal history, he says, would certainly benefit his business.

Target's Garvis point out that it has not been decided whether anyone outside of the criminal justice community will have access to even limited amounts of CriMNet data, such as conviction information. In fact, the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Task Force, a group consisting chiefly of government bureaucrats who are making recommendations on CriMNet, has urged that CriMNet be exempted from the state's open-records laws until 2004 while they untangle the nettlesome issue of public access.

That, in its own right, is problematic, says Don Gemberling. The state's leading authority on the Minnesota Data Practices Act, Gemberling serves as the director of the Information Policy Analysis Division at the Department of Administration. "I know from bitter experience that if the detailed requirements of the Data Practices Act are not integrated into computerized systems at the design level, then guess what? You wake up one day and you're told that it can't be made compliant because it's going to be too damn expensive," Gemberling says. "If I've heard that once, I've heard it 40 times."

Privacy advocate Rich Neumeister shares Gemberling's concern. One of four citizens appointed to serve on a CriMNet advisory panel, Neumeister worries that fair information principles, the foundation of the Data Practices Act, are being given short shrift. "This technology raises a lot of questions about the relationship between citizens and state authority. Policymakers need to ask those questions," Neumeister observes. "But it's not really happening, because the techies are running the show." Take MRAP, the state's newly developed digitalized mug shot database. With the coming generation of facial recognition software, Neumeister points out, MRAP has the potential to become a cornerstone of sophisticated surveillance operations. But there has been little discussion about whether that ought to be limited or prohibited. And, Neumeister says, the issue of access to criminal histories remains murky.

As it stands now, you can obtain criminal histories by two means: making a written request to the BCA and paying a fee, or going to the BCA headquarters in St. Paul and entering search queries into the terminals there. Technically, all felony and gross misdemeanor convictions less than 15 years old are public. Arrest data, on the other hand, is deemed private--a rule rooted in the principle that people should not have to bear the stigma of an offense for which they have not been convicted. (Interestingly, that same data is public data if you get it from the local police department instead of the BCA. It is a bureaucratic obfuscation put in place to serve privacy interests.) But there is a huge loophole. If the subject signs what is known as an informed consent form, then private arrest data can be released. And landlords and employers routinely require that prospective tenants and employees sign the consent form. Of the more than 116,000 background checks conducted by the BCA last year, 98,850 were performed with the consent of the subject.

So what will the consequences be for people looking for work or housing when the more expansive and detailed criminal histories found on CriMNet become available? "I'm afraid we are going to create a class of people who can never be employed and never find housing because every peccadillo and mistake will follow them for as long as they live,"posits the Board of Public Defense's Sykora. He is especially alarmed by the prospect that criminal records will become available on the Web. "There is a real and palpable difference between information that you can only get by standing in line in a courthouse and information that is available to anyone on earth with a web browser," he adds. "So we've got a huge public policy decision we've got to make before we transfer this to the Web."

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