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Lawmakers demand information on controversial phone-tracking devices

  • Blog Post by: Abby Simons
  • December 12, 2013 - 6:36 PM

A bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday requested information about a controversial law enforcement device that captures cellular phone data.

“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. “ said the letter to Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman that was  signed by members of the House and Senate.  “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.”

The letter was sent in response to media reports and citizen concerns about equipment sold under brand names like “Kingfish” or “Stingray,” which mimics local phone towers to capture cellular phone data and location information on phones in a given area.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension currently has the technology, as does the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Earlier this year, open government and privacy advocate Rich Neumeister requested information from the device from the agencies, which in part triggered the lawmakers’ action.

The letter, signed by State Senators Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge and Representatives John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul and Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, asked  what kind of device is used by DPS and in which divisions; its cost, capabilities and whether a search warrant is required to use it. The letter also requests examples of closed investigations where the equipment was used and “why it was felt to be necessary.”

DPS spokesman Bruce Gordon said the technology is “an important tool for the BCA in criminal investigations such as kidnappings, fugitive searches, AMBER Alerts, and homicides.” He said it does not allow the BCA to listen to phone conversations or read text messages.

“We look forward to explaining why this technology is an important tool for the BCA in criminal investigations such as kidnappings, fugitive searches, AMBER Alerts, and homicides.” he said.
The lawmakers’ letter also asks whether the devices have been used near the State Capitol, what data is kept and for how long.

The letter followed an announcement this week by Lesch that he intends to question authorities about the devices in a House Civil Law Committee oversight hearing set for late next month.
 

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