Who watches the people watching us?

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Cops in Minneapolis and Hennepin County have been videotaping us for years. What are they doing with it? They won't say. Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Hey Hennepin County, where will your face be next February?

Unless you’re ceding the Twin Cities to Super Bowl tourists, let’s assume your face will, at some point, go outside.

That means your mug might also wind up on one of a vast system of public and privately operated surveillance video cameras, which feed into a network accessed by the Hennepin County Sherriff’s Office and the Minneapolis Police Department. The feeder cameras number at least 400; there might be as many as 3,000.

Your face could then be instantly matched against a vast database that might recognize you among up to two and a half million faces, twice as many as live in Hennepin County.

The scenario is a hypothetical, but it’s something the sheriff’s office has considered. Facial recognition and real-time camera streaming are in use; whether they’ve been linked up isn’t known. If it were up to the county, you wouldn’t know anything at all.

That we do is thanks to Tony Webster. Back in 2015, Webster, a software engineer, journalist, and public information hawk, filed a data request for any information about “biometric” technologies — such as facial recognition or fingerprint scanners — Minnesota law enforcement agencies had considered or already deployed.

As Webster recalls, within about a month he had collected “voluminous” records from various agencies. Except Hennepin County. The sheriff’s department dragged its feet, eventually telling Webster his request—the same one met by other agencies—was too big a task to even attempt. A review of the county’s emails would take a total of 10,800 hours, by their estimate. 

Asked if it possessed sophisticated technology that reads people’s faces to determine their identity, Hennepin County claimed it lacked the ability to search an email inbox.

Webster took them to court, with attorneys agreeing to represent him pro bono. Minnesota has a good open records law, which, among other things, requires public records be kept in a manner that “make them easily accessible” to the public.

“I asked for the data,” Webster says. “A judge should be able to enforce the law. I did not expect it to turn into this.”

By “this,” Webster refers to a legal battle that’s now before the Minnesota Supreme Court, and has all the makings of a landmark decision about what the public’s allowed to ask for from its government. Webster won before an administrative law judge, and in appeals court. This time the stakes are much higher.

On one side stands Hennepin County, which, as of last week, is joined by almost every unit of government under the state of Minnesota: A recent filing represented organizations of Minnesota’s cities, counties, sheriffs, prosecutors, and school boards. They’re asking the court to interpret the open records law to shield units of government (them) from data requests by citizens (you).

Webster has allies on his side, including good-government groups and journalism outfits — among them the Star Tribune Company, owner of City Pages — that argue Minnesota’s 43-year-old open records law works fine as it is, and should be left intact.

Aaron Mackey of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says neither Webster’s request nor Hennepin County’s “mystifying” response reveals any problem with the statute.

“Their argument is with the law,” Mackey says. “The law clearly requires them to do these things.”

Lobbyists for cities and counties have sought protections from “burdensome” requests in the past, says Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, the House leader on civil law and data practices. They have never convinced the Legislature. Truly egregious inquiries are rare. Local governments support their argument in the Webster case by digging up a request for “all public data on all past and present employees” of the Edina school district. It was filed in 2000 — by a woman who had been served restraining orders by five other state agencies.

Scott says government already has the option of meeting large requests over a period of time, as staffing allows. They don’t need more protection than that. “It’s basically the cost of doing business as the government,” she says.

Kim Saterbak, auditor of Swift County (population 9,400) in western Minnesota, can’t recall a request that required the county to find extra staff or budget extra money. “We just consider it part of our job duties, for the benefit of residents,” Saterbak says.

A couple years ago, suburban White Bear Lake (population about 25,000) adopted a “model policy” to keep it in line with the state open records law. Says city clerk/administrative assistant Kara Coutry: “We’re generally required to keep information in such a formation that it’s easy to access.”

Last year, someone asked the city of Lakeville (population about 62,000) to hand over every single email sent or received by four city employees during a month-long period. The request was honored.

City administrator Justin Miller remembers consulting with the city attorney and spending “five or six hours” combing his emails to sort out which were public information. “I’ve always worked under the assumption anything I have on my work email is going to be public,” says Miller.

If these people can work with the state law, shouldn’t we demand the same of the biggest, richest county in the state?

So far, Webster’s seen only a few of Hennepin County’s emails from his original request, though those have been “very interesting.” They reveal the county’s interest in bulking up the numbers of cameras it can access and faces in its system, and specifically reference the possibility of implementing the system before next year’s Super Bowl.

Webster’s final response brief is due to the court before the end of this month, with oral arguments later this year. A decision might not come down until next spring.

Go ahead, enjoy the big game. Then watch for the final score of this case. We probably won’t find out if Hennepin County’s spying on its people before Super Bowl week. If the people of Minnesota lose in court, we might never know.

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