Monday, March 12, 2012

Will Minn Legislature authorize secret spying?

Minnesota law enforcement has proposed HF 2470/SF 1937 Criminal intelligence, and HF 2435/SF 2317 MNJAC-Fusion Center with  public hearings to start this week on them. The legislation allows law enforcement to expand their powers to collect data on you, to share it with others, and to have less public scrutiny than what current law now provides.

In the wake of 9/11 and the last decade laws have been legislated on the federal and state levels to collect more information on you. The proposed legislation means the police may soon be collecting information on citizens at an unprecedented level.

You might wonder why that matters to you, a law-abiding citizen.

And that's where we have to look at our recent history.  Remember, the Gang Strike Force aspersions and disgrace. Those of you who may not remember, part of the indignation over the matter was an existing database system that listed thousands of supposed "gang members." The criteria was set up by cops alone -- and people's names were added solely to the list the same way. It was easy to get on the list.  Being seen with an documented gang member, you were listed. If you have a suspicious tattoo that you had done on your trip to Hawaii, you were identified.  Even having a close relative on the wrong side of the law could get you possibly captured in the computer. Seen on the street with a convicted person? That could help put you on the list as well.

But more than that, GangNet was secret, unaccountable, and not transparent.  The most troubling part of that is that YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW IT.  Like all of the most insidious government records, the list was unknown.  They wouldn't tell you if you were on the list, wouldn't tell you why and wouldn't tell you how to get off the list. On the other hand, if you applied for a conceal and carry permit you could be denied based on your name being solely in GangNet, or you could be treated as a suspect and be under surveillance or background information gathered on you. Or pop up on a squad car computer screen as a dangerous character if you'd been stopped for something as innocuous as making a prohibited right turn on red.

Minnesota has a long history of these kinds of records. State authorities kept them during World War I to keep track of subversives -- often better known as German immigrants. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police recently had another system, called MNJO. Police developed extensive secret files ahead of the Republican National Convention in 2008. The files were none of your business -- and you couldn't even find out who had the right to look at them.

Almost two years ago, a state panel legislated by the Legislature met over a period of 5 months with hours and hours to discuss about the next generation of domestic intelligence gathering in Minnesota.  What they came up with was an executive summary report, but no concrete recommendations because law enforcement was not willing to compromise on major issues such as independent audits, transparency, public accountability, and the trigger that bring people into the database and files the "reasonable suspicion" standard.

Criminal intelligence can be collected on such simple things as a phone call to the police accusing you of being involved in drugs, or by an anonymous tip with any kind of accusation, or even if you are protesting against the war or big government.

How the local and state police use this kind of data, even with good intentions, raises far reaching constitutional rights issues regarding individual privacy, public accountability, and First Amendment issues.  There is a real possibility that innocent people could be speculated upon and branded as a suspect and be placed in a database secretly and unaccountable and then the data being shared throughout the state and to the Federal Government.

But I'd like to urge Minnesotans to mind these developments. Ask your legislator to keep track of these bills. Tell your lawmaker that you care about issues like whether or not police can keep files on people who aren't suspected of a crime. Ask who will be watching the watchers. Remind your lawmakers that the state gave you the right to see your personnel file at work, and that it is probably just as, if not more important, to know what the police think of you.

The  Minnesota State Legislature can ensure that the tools of law enforcement to solve crime and keep us safe do not become a device for a particular purpose of a police state.

Because if we have not learned anything from our history, from the abuses of the FBI to what has happened such as the Gang Strike Force scandal in Minnesota, it is this: a little misinformation and a mask of criminal suspicion can keep out of sight bad behavior and dereliction of duty by even the best intended in the midst of us.

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