Strib Wrestles with MN Department of Public Safety Over Cell Phone Tracking Documents

The agency that interprets the state's public records law has weighed in on attempts to get more information about cell phone tracking devices such as StingRay and KingFish.

In a ruling Monday, acting administration commissioner Matt Massman opined that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety should no longer withhold its contracts and non-disclosure agreements with device maker Harris Corp. James Eli Shiffer, a watchdog and data editor for the Star Tribune, has the story on his blog, because he's at the center of it.

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"I've been trying to get those records since June, but the department has refused to release them," Shiffer wrote Tuesday. "They say doing so would violate trade secrets and expose investigative techniques that could be exploited by criminals."

For help, the paper turned to the Information Policy Analysis Division of the Minnesota Department of Administration, perhaps the sleepiest name in the history of bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the work these folks do is important, and Massman's opinion may finally break the public safety department's intransigence.

Back in May, James Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff's Association, assured us that cell phone tracking devices like StingRay and KingFish are not used in this state to extract people's personal data: They merely pinpoint the location of suspected criminals by acting as a cell phone tower.

We're not alone in finding the "just trust us" attitude troubling. Four legislators called hearings last year, demanding to know more. During the session, a bill authored by state Sen. Branden Petersen (R-Andover) was signed into law, raising the threshold from "reasonable suspicion" to "probable cause" and requiring police to notify people who've been the subject of a cell phone tracking warrant.

What little we know at this point about the technology and its use in Minnesota comes from various news reports as well as Rich Neumeister, an open-government advocate in possession of a slightly redacted contract between Hennepin County and Harris Corp. Massman mentioned this document in his ruling, suggesting that the state's top cops could just as simply release it with the necessary omissions.

But will they? The Minnesota Department of Public Safety did not respond to our request for comment, so it's not immediately clear how they intend to proceed.

Shiffer has renewed his data request and is also waiting for a response. Assuming the documents come through, the larger question remains: How do cops use the devices and under what circumstances? Neumeister's document, for instance, only tells us how much the county threw down -- $389,050.

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