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Snooping or security: legislature wants to know

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The privacy versus security debate consuming Washington D.C. will come to Minnesota in the new legislative session. The Star Tribune reports lawmakers plan to ask law enforcement leaders about surveillance equipment they use.

At issue are devices like the KingFish and StingRay. They mimic local phone towers to capture data and location information of cellular phones in a given area. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has one; so does the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

Other law enforcement tools like GPS trackers and license plate readers may also be on the agenda for the House Civil Law Committee at its oversight hearing next month.

Wired magazine reported on an Arizona case in which a wireless provider reached out remotely to reprogram an air card the suspect was using in order to make it communicate with the government’s surveillance tool so that he could be located. The defendant in the case said evidence gathered in this way should be suppressed because it violated his privacy rights. The government agreed, and said the FBI needed a warrant.

The new surveillance technology has raised questions about who owns personal data and under what circumstances the government can access it.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of legislators asked Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman to explain how and why such equipment is used. The lawmakers wanted to know whether a warrant is required, what the surveillance capabilities are, examples of its use in investigations, and "why it was felt to be necessary."

“The public’s concern about the federal government’s use of phone data puts additional scrutiny on similar surveillance by state and local law enforcement agencies,” the letter said. “Additionally, mistrust and problems with data breaches at the state level raise concerns about who has access to this information and how long it is kept by the government.”

Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he’s willing to look at the issue with an open mind, but said such devices can be a “tremendous tool” that go beyond catching suspects to locating people who may be in danger.

“I sound like a typical cop, but if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about, and cops have bigger things to worry about,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t want rights to be stepped on.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation hosts a surveillance self-defense website with information about what the government can legally do with surveillance technology and what people can do to protect their privacy.

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