James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

State rejects my request for cellphone tracking records

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: June 23, 2014 - 10:18 AM
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman

I found out on Friday that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety would not provide me any records about its Stingray and Kingfish cellphone tracking gizmos. This did not come as a surprise, given that privacy and open government advocate Rich Neumeister has already tried and failed to get the same info. My Sunday column (linked here, and below) focused on Neumeister's effort to expose more about this super-secret technology, despite the barriers. I had asked DPS Commissioner Ramona Dohman for copies of the contracts with the device makers and the non-disclosure agreements that state officials almost certainly have signed.

An email Friday from DPS spokesman Bruce Gordon said the following:

The data you requested are not public.

Under Minnesota law, a corporation supplying data to a government entity may claim portions are trade secret, pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 13.37 Subd. l(b). The contracting company in this case has taken efforts to protect the data from disclosure.

 The data are also considered deliberative process data under Minn. Stat. §13.82, Subd. 25;  disclosure would reveal information regarding investigative techniques that would compromise ongoing and future criminal investigations.  

Not everyone sees the law that way. Hennepin County gave Neumeister redacted copies of its contract and non-disclosure agreement. I learned from the contract that tracking device maker Harris Corp. agrees to abide by Minnesota's public records law, which extends to data held by government contractors related to their taxpayer-funded work. So last week I requested records from the Florida company as well.

Here's the column:

The police have never knocked down Rich Neumeister’s door in the middle of the night. They haven’t rifled through his files, tapped his phone or done anything else that explains Neumeister’s lifelong vigilance against government invasion of privacy.

He’s just a weird guy. And I’m not talking about his wild bushy mustache that looks like a drowned mouse.

To put food on the table, Neumeister drives disabled people around. He also sold clean and dirty magazines at Shinders before it closed in 2007. His paying jobs give him time for his true passion: Haunting the Capitol to advocate for privacy protections and open government.

“In all my years of doing the stuff I’ve done, I’ve never used my access or knowledge to gain something for myself personally,” he said, and it shows.

Neumeister’s latest obsession is a little electronic box that police use to track people by the location of their cellphones. The government says that if it releases even basic information about its “Kingfish” and “Stingray” technologies, the bad guys will figure out a way to defeat it. So they have gone to extraordinary lengths to shield records of “cellular exploitation” devices, withholding even basic details about what they have and how they use them.

Despite that, Neumeister has persuaded Hennepin County to give him its contract with manufacturer Harris Corp. and the agreement that the sheriff’s office signed pledging not to talk to anyone about its tracking gadgets. Neumeister’s lobbying played a decisive role in the Legislature’s bipartisan vote this session to require “tracking warrants” before these devices can be deployed.

Last week, Neumeister, 59, told me his story while contemplating the unfamiliar flavors of miso soup and edamame at a downtown Japanese restaurant.

He fully embraces the “weird guy” moniker, bestowed upon him by a City Pages article in 2002. Forget the hair, or the paper-spilling briefcase. What’s weird is his unerring faith in the institutions of American society, and the ability of one relentless guy with no money but loads of time and brains to make a difference.

The son of a disabled Korean War veteran and a part-time waitress, Neumeister grew up in public housing projects in St. Paul. His trip to Washington with the Close Up program, which takes high schoolers to see their seat of government, was a religious experience. He worked on campaigns, earned political science and sociology degrees from Hamline and took jobs with nonprofits.

Then he discovered his calling as a citizen-lobbyist. For the past 36 years, every time the Minnesota Legislature has come to town, legislators confronted a solitary but persistent advocate, often lugging grocery bags full of bills. Even his sometime adversaries in law enforcement have given him credit for sticking to his principles. In 2003, Businessweek credited Neumeister for having “had a hand in shaping every piece of privacy and data-protection legislation in his home state of Minnesota for the last quarter century.”

He pairs his privacy obsession with thousands of data requests: “I’m a sucker and a vacuum for information,” Neumeister said.

About four years ago, he got worried about a new generation of electronic surveillance. Cellular exploitation technology could snatch huge amounts of information from smartphones.

It did not surprise Neumeister to see an Associated Press report earlier this month that the Obama administration had intervened in local public records requests and trials to prevent details of cellphone tracking technology from getting out. U.S. marshals went so far as to confiscate local law enforcement records in Sarasota, Fla., to keep them out of the hands of the American Civil Liberties Union, the AP reported.

Neumeister doesn’t know whether similar federal meddling had gone on here. But so far, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has refused to give him any records related to the Kingfish and Stingray devices, although Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman told lawmakers in January that it had spent $632,000 on the devices and used them to locate crime suspects and victims.

Next year, Neumeister will be back at the Capitol pushing once again for action on issues such as license plate recognition devices, which police use to scoop up data from every vehicle that goes by. “If there are no rules for tools, then we’ll be tooled around,” he said.

Even if they wanted to, the police cannot use its whiz-bang technology to track down the weird guy. He doesn’t have a car. Or a cellphone.

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