Federal Bureau of InvestigationFBI officials and other state and federal police want to swap criminal information through a national database.
In the latest push by federal law enforcement agencies to nationalize criminal intelligence data gathered by state and local police, Minnesota is weighing whether to link a statewide database with an FBI information-sharing system, despite concerns by privacy and open-government advocates about the accuracy of such data, among other issues.
A task force made up of police, probation officers, judges, public defenders and other members will make a final decision next week on whether to recommend to the Minnesota Legislature that the state participate. Several agencies in California already belong to the program, known as the National Data Exchange, or N-DEx. The program became fully operational nationwide last summer.
“Allowing law enforcement records to be forwarded to N-Dex would be a benefit to law enforcement agencies not only in Minnesota, but also across the nation,” Ron Sager, president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, wrote in support of the program. “As we are all aware, criminals are not concerned with geographic or political jurisdictional boundaries.”
The Land of 10,000 Lakes has some of the nation’s strictest data privacy laws, which have restricted the sharing of information on a federal level. Any decision to share information on a statewide level would require a change to Minnesota law.
The information-sharing system allows police – including military, federal, state and local agencies – and other law enforcement, such as prison officials, to access and swap criminal-related data, such as a subject’s name, the type of contact with law enforcement and any charges.
More than 113 million records [PDF] were in the system as of August 2011, including about 10 million from four California databases. Texas was the biggest contributor, with more than 46 million records.
While police and prosecutors widely support the entire state joining the program, privacy advocates warn against such data-sharing practices.
Robert Sykora, chief information officer for the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, said such information sharing would essentially federalize local police records, which could be passed along to other federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Federal Bureau of InvestigationAn FBI database, whose process is depicted above, allows state and local police to swap crime information with federal agents and other police nationwide.
Sykora has opposed other data practices in the state, including a decision by state law enforcement officials to collect and retain criminal intelligence data, known as suspicious activity reports, that didn’t appear to rise to the level of reasonable suspicion, and a subsequent decision to restrict public access to those reports.
The Center for Investigative Reporting, in conjunction with National Public Radio and "PBS NewsHour," reported last year on one program at the Mall of America in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb. Through a public-records request, CIR and NPR obtained 125 suspicious activity reports, totaling more than 1,000 pages of records.
"I believe it is contrary to the spirit and letter of the law to effectively keep those reports concealed by classifying them as 'security data' – a classification the Legislature never intended to be used for what is effectively police intelligence data," he wrote. "I strongly disagree with you and your agency about these issues because of history’s loud message that when governments begin to keep surreptitious records about law-abiding members of society, abuses of our most valued civil liberties are certain to follow."
The decision to block public scrutiny of the suspicious activity reports came after CIR obtained the majority of the reports, most of which had been forwarded by the mall's counterterrorism unit to the Bloomington Police Department. In response to a follow-up request for more reports, CIR was told that the documents had been declared “private security data” under state law.
“This declaration was made jointly by the Bloomington Police Department, the MN Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Department of Homeland Security after the documents were released to you in 2010,” Lisa C. Netzer, an associate Bloomington city attorney, wrote in an April 2011 e-mail to CIR. “Due to this declaration, I cannot release any additional information.”
Sykora warned that his state's decision to collect, maintain and restrict public scrutiny of criminal intelligence data, despite concerns over privacy and lack of transparency, was a predictor of things to come nationwide.
When it comes to collecting and restricting public access to criminal intelligence data, "The message is: 'You don't want to be protected from terrorism?' " he said. "They won't stop at anything to get that information."