Monday, October 13, 2014

City of Rochester and the right to know

When I was in Duluth in August I overwhelmed by the response by the public who very much wanted to know and learn about this tool (law) called the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  There was a hunger for residents of that fine city to learn about why their elected officials are destroying a great stretch of canopied trees on 4th Street.   There were several people engaged with agencies in trying to get information about themselves in pursuant of their due process rights. Numerous reasons why the people were there, but one common thread connected them......they wanted data about themselves or about the government that is involved in their daily lives.

In Rochester next week, there will be an activity to continue the empowerment of residents of Minnesota:

"On Tuesday, October 21, 2014, Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media (PRM) will host a Freedom of Information (FOI) workshop at the Heintz Center at Rochester Community and Technical College. The Henitz Center is located as 1926 College View Road, SE, in Rochester. The event will run from 6:00pm-8:00pm in the Heintz Commons.

The workshop will explore how members of the public can use FOI laws – both Minnesota and federal – to obtain government records of interest to them. The presentation will feature comments by Rich Neumeister, a long-time record requester and open government advocate. An introduction will be given by PRM president Matt Ehling."

Over the past weeks since Matt and I were in Duluth we have heard from people who have used the Data Practices Act to gather data on policy matters and to fight for their due process rights.  After the intensive almost 2 hour workshop, one could see in many of the faces of people who were there that they may not be a lawyer, professional journalist, or researcher, but were a resident/citizen and they had a right to know more about their government.  And they were going to use this new tool (Data Practices Act) they learned.

See you in Rochester!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

What's Minn Legislative Privacy/Data Commisiion's next move?

For many long time advocates of privacy and open government at the Minnesota Legislature, yesterdays meeting of the Legislative Commission on Data Practices and Personal Data Privacy may prove to be a turning point for the residents of Minnesota.  For years the Legislature when a specific issue of privacy/open government and advanced technology clash the policymakers take a stab at it, think they have solved the problem, but technology sneakily bypasses the law.

This was the situation with the warrant bill for cell phone location last session.  Law enforcement was not knocking on policymakers doors saying we have concerns for the liberty and privacy of Minnesota residents and we wish to update the law to make law enforcement more accountable and to protect the privacy of the people we serve.  The last time til this past session that "Privacy of Communications" law was updated in a major way was in 1989.  It took a couple of interested legislators for major change for the protection of privacy and law enforcement accountability after 25 years, Senator Branden Peterson and Rep. Joe Atkins (cell phone  location privacy bill)

The discussion and debate, and the engaging dialogue and questioning of testifiers, at the Commission meeting shows that rather than the Legislature take a "one bill to solve a problem approach" they may decide to take the big picture view.
 
That "big picture" view is one acknowledging being that technology is always changing, need to have flexible laws to adopt to that change, but also to have a broad framework to protect the privacy, liberty, and freedom of Minnesotans and access to public data that is so important for an informed populace.

There was also a theme that was quite directed at the law enforcement representatives by the Commission members.......do not surprise the public and Minnesota Legislature with your new surveillance technologies without talking to the public and policymakers.  For years and the behavior continues even as write this post, law enforcement has a penchant for secrecy and believes they do not need to be held accountable.  That needs to change as many Commission members made clear.

The Commission members also took a survey of themselves to see what issues they may prioritize  for the next several months.

The issues were:
-Drone regulation
-Education/Student data collection
-Enforcement of the Data Practices Act within government entities
-Government technologies used for collection of data in general
-Health care data issues
-Inventory of technology government has already purchased and how it is being used
-Legislative Auditor's reports on data practices in regards to data practices
-Organization of state statutes on data practices
-Political subdivisions increasing data collection requirements for certain business practices
-Review of what other states are doing 
-State Agency policies on data sales and the revenue generated
-Timberjay bill issues (bulk data and health plan issues)

Results forthcoming!



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Is your shopping mall spying on you?


LPR's  — which record photos of license plates  — have been installed over various entrances and exits to the Mall of America.  What is different than local law enforcement use of LPR is a partnership between a private entity and a local government agency to gather and collect location data on many thousands - if not hundred of thousands - of vehicles, which in turn are tied to people.

In August of 2012, before the LPR cameras were purchased and placed at the Mall of America, Bloomington Police collected 577, 859 LPR scans of vehicles for the month.  In May of 2014, the total number of BPD scans topped 1, 150, 719 — it more than doubled.

Through a data practices request, I received a memo of understanding (MOU) between the City of Bloomington and the Mall of America (MOA ) that allows the Bloomington Police Department to install LPR cameras - possibly as many as 16 - at the Mall to do surveillance activity.

The LPR's were purchased by the Bloomington Police Department (BPD) with grants from the US Department of Homeland Security and the State of Minnesota Department of Commerce.  The agreement highlights that the LPR's are for the "security of the Mall, to identify vehicles that pose a threat to public safety, or have a warrant issued for the vehicle’s owner."    But also used "for the identification of potential criminals."

The Mall of America has been a focal point of civil liberty and privacy concerns in the past.  In reporting done by National Public Radio and the Center for Investigative Reporting there were issues of how the Mall was handling suspicious activities reporting and "disrupting innocent people's lives."

What does the Mall of America specifically do with the data it collects?  How long do they keep it? Should Mall of America customers be given notice that their license plate is being searched, examined, and compared against a "hot list?"  It is clear the Mall of America gets "identification of vehicles entering the MOAC property."  Is this only the picture of vehicle and license plate number?  The agreement states that the Mall does not collect from BPD "data relating to the registration or ownership of these vehicles" that are scanned.  But it is easy to "buy" bulk lists of drivers license and registration as highlighted in the most recent Minnesota legislative session when the issue of access to drivers license and registration was part of major discussion.  Is the Mall of America buying this kind of data and pairing it up with the "identification of vehicle" for numerous purposes?

It is not just law enforcement taking a bite out of your privacy and liberty with the license plate readers, but the Mall of America is doing the same.

Update/Note: I spoke with Chief Potts after this post was initially published and he stated that the Mall of America is not getting any "identification of vehicles" contrary to what I was told by Bloomington Police Department previously.  Attempt was made to contact Mall of America public relations to comment on story with message left, but no return call.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Situational ethics in St Paul

Does the City of St Paul have a code of ethics for it's elected officials so the public can be clear as well as elected officials when a situation erupts as happened in the Black Bear Crossings settlement? Underlying the $800,000 settlement is the personal relationship that's between Councilperson Amy Brendmoen and the St Paul Director of Parks and Recreation Michael Hahm.  Did it play a factor in St Paul's interaction with Black Bear Crossings and the large settlement?  Some people may believe it did, while others do not.  The public may never know.

When one reviews conflict of interest guidelines/rules in Minnesota, they are mostly tied to personal relationships for financial gain.  It appears none where a personal relationship can be tied in with policy change, killing of a proposal, or just using influence to make things happen.  But maybe there should be.  How it is defined is the tricky part, though.  Should it be done on a state or local level?

Speaking with many people last week on the settlement, it is clear there needs to be some space for the elected official to do their work, their "constituent" advocacy, also to push and shove when need be with agencies, but there also needs to be rules to limit the undue influence when there appears to be a conflict of interest because of a personal relationship.

City leaders in City Hall may think it is not a big issue, personal relationships and conflict of interest, but the public gets it and do know what's appropriate or not.  The public just has broader definitions of conflicts of interest.

For your information:
Conflict of Interest definitions from other states:
 http://www.ncsl.org/research/ethics/50-state-table-conflict-of-interest-definitions.aspx


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Closed-door "deal" in St Paul and solution

The Black Bear Crossings $800,000 settlement should create needed discussion with the public, policymakers, and government officials.  In this case as with many other similar type of settlements it's done and negotiated behind closed doors with no public insight as to what happened, how it happened, and what lessons are learned.

I wrote a post on an analogous situation dealing with huge settlements because of law enforcement misdeeds last year.  The secrecy involved in government civil settlements is very troubling.  Dollar settlements by government are reached in all kinds of situations such as employment, contract, and the inaction's and actions of government as it administers its functions with it's broad power.  Over the years I have seen many settlement agreements arising out of disputes with government.  I would say a frequent number of them are to make disturbing and shameful "cans of worms" go away, often with statements to deny liability and have government and parties involved gagged and not to talk with public and the media.

For example, these are two clauses in the settlement with Black Bear Crossings that illustrate the denial and gagging behavior.

"Plaintiffs (Black Bear Crossings) acknowledge the City (St Paul) has denied and continues to deny any liability for the Claims asserted in the Plaintiffs' Complaint, Plaintiffs agree that this Agreement shall not be in any way be construed as an admission by the City of any unlawful or wrongful act whatsoever........."

"The parties and their counsel hereby agree not to comment on the terms, impact, or basis for the Parties' decision to enter into this agreement to the media..........."

But what also the agreement calls for, if the public inquires along with the media, specific terms to respond with, such as the "case was resolved to the mutual satisfaction" of both parties and if continued questioning say "no comment"

Like I said there are different kinds of dispute settlements with government, a great number of them involve personnel/employment matters.  Years ago, when personnel settlements were being hammered out with gag clauses to keep the public from knowing anything and why thousand's of public dollars were being spent, a bill was introduced and became law to remedy that.  It may be time to do the same with other kind of settlements arising from disputes and disagreements with government.

The proposed bill could go something like this:  (modified from Minnesota Statute 13.43, subdivision 10)

"A government entity may not enter into an agreement settling a dispute arising out of the relationship with the purpose or effect of limiting access to or disclosure of......data or limiting the discussion of information or opinions related to.......data. An agreement or portion of an agreement that violates this paragraph is void and unenforceable.
(b) Paragraph (a) applies to the following, but only to the extent that the data or information could otherwise be made accessible to the public:
(1) an agreement not to discuss, publicize, or comment on ........ data or information;
(2) an agreement that limits the ability of the subject of..... data to release or consent to the release of data; or
(3) any other provision of an agreement that has the effect of limiting the disclosure or discussion of information that could otherwise be made accessible to the public."

This kind of law would do several things for the public.  Bring transparency, allow for public and government officials to comment as to what happened, but more important to learn the why and what the government will do so that headaches and complications that caused hundreds of thousands or millions of public dollars will not happen again.

Yes, Council Members Bostrom and Chris Tolbert I share your "frustration and disgust" as I know many members of the public do.  But what are you and the Minnesota Legislature going to do about it?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Baring the soul of who we are, to others we do not even know

With the messages I am getting in email and twitter accounts maybe "someone" knows me better than myself.  Advertisements, messages, promotions, and efforts targeted towards me with their comfy questions or appeals are based on the knowledge I have shared with my searches, emails, and interaction in the universe of electronic communication.

In the old days, I would get the phone calls and the junk mail based on preferences of politics and likes with signing up on mailing lists with various groups.  But that has all changed.  It has been four years since I received a laptop and begun my presence on the Internet.  I took the initiative to start a Twitter account, have a blog, and to communicate in a way that has revolutionized my efforts to effect change in the community and state I live in.  But what have I given up?

I am still trying to figure that out for myself.  I have an idea or two.  A fact I have taken into consideration is the following stated in 1968:

Arthur R. Miller, professor of law at the University of Michigan, has said: “The computer, with its insatiable appetite for information, its ‘image’ of infallibility, its inability to forget anything that has been put into it, may become the heart of a surveillance system that will turn society into a transparent world in which our home, our finances, our associations, our mental and physical condition are bared to the most casual observer.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Stingray contract/agreement Minnesotan's need to see

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety/Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (DPS/BCA) has consistently refused me and most recently the Star Tribune to release and make public the contract/non-disclosure agreement between the Harris Corporation and DPS/BCA.  The Harris Corporation has received over $600,000 of state funds, for equipment known as Stingray and Kingfish.  The dollars have been used to purchase, maintain and upgrade the equipment.  Upgrades can also be done to Stingray that allows for interception of individual phone calls.

What does DPS/BCA wish to hide from the public?  Names of the people who signed the contract?  The dates that the contract was signed?  The amount of public dollars spent?  Will it show if contract/agreement is released to public that DPS/BCA is violating state law and doing illegal behavior?

DPS/BCA has argued to me and I presume the Star Tribune the whole contract/non-disclosure agreement cannot be released because it is trade secret and it compromises law enforcement techniques.  Sorry to say that both assertions are false and can be easily discredited.

Release the contract/agreement with the appropriate redaction's.  It's possible that the contract/agreement may contain data that can be appropriately classified, and if so, DPS/BCA should redact those data. That empowers me and the public to understand the context of any censoring.

In the contract/agreement there is presumptively public data that should be made available to Minnesotans and me, to think otherwise is stupidity and irrationality on the part of the Department of Public Safety/Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.