I had planned to attend Tuesday's legislative hearing on public access and privacy surrounding police body cameras, but it was canceled, so I called one of the reigning savants on the topic, Rich Neumeister.
As it happens, Neumeister was on his way to St. Cloud to do a seminar on the evolving data practices and privacy issues in the age of easy-access databases and omnipresent cameras.
Coincidentally, on Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council will discuss the city's demands that new transportation services such as Uber turn over the names of drivers for safety reasons, which the companies say will compromise "proprietary" information and hurt their ability to remain competitive.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, some City Council members want to standardize and streamline the process of access to government data.
"It's a place we need to spend more time on," said Minneapolis Council Member Barb Johnson. "There is a huge desire for government information, and it's growing exponentially."
"Issues are busting loose all over," said Neumeister.
Areas in which questions of public access and privacy bump up against each other have included: body cams, the Lilydale landslide case and health maintenance organizations that want to keep dealings with government secret.
Neumeister credits two developments in the surge in public quest for information, and the coinciding desire to keep private matters out of the hands of the government.
Advanced computerization has made collected data much more accessible. You no longer have to pore through boxes of information to find a needle in a haystack, then pay thousands of dollars for copies. A lot of that information is now available in electronic, searchable form.
Secondly, it's no longer just reporters and activists like Neumeister who are requesting information. Thank Edward Snowden, tech-savvy bloggers and just plain concerned citizens who have figured out how to ask for everything from police call documents to militarization of law enforcement to handling of marijuana cases.
Some just want to know what kinds of information the government has on them.
"People, particularly in Minnesota, are showing lots of distrust in the technology," such as license plate tracking and captured videos, Neumeister said.
"The fact is, in a goofy kind of way, information is blood," said Neumeister. "You need information to assert your rights."
Take the case of police body cameras, which are now being tested in Minneapolis. Those who favor the cameras mostly agree that filming should be user-trigged, rather than continuous, otherwise random capture of information about innocent people could be stored by police or made public.
Transparency advocates acknowledge that some video may be lost because officers fail to turn the cameras on, but that is a lesser problem than privacy concerns of continuous filming.
The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), a government transparency advocate group, was set to present its recommendations on police cams to the Legislature on Tuesday.
"The existing law is good so far," said Gary Hill, president of MNCOGI. "It's widely presumed that almost everything government employees do is public."
Hill said cameras could be extremely helpful "in cases like Ferguson [the police shooting of Michael Brown], where you have several contradictory versions of what happened. It's not possible that everyone who testified was correct."
Currently, the standard operating procedures of the body cams prohibit filming during SWAT team operations, something MNCOGI considers a shortcoming in the law because "SWAT raids constitute some of the most contentious uses of law enforcement authority."
Hill says capturing incidents on cameras is not enough — we need guarantees of what kinds of police actions must be released, and which must remain private.
Given President Obama's call for more police cameras, "it's going to become the norm," said Hill.
"If you want to build support of police in the community, you can't collect all the film and then not make it public," Hill said.
In the case of car services, the city of St. Paul wants to license drivers so that there is public information about them, just like cabdrivers. Uber said such information would allow competitors to lure their employees away.
But how does that square with a customer's right to know they are getting into a car with a safe driver? Neumeister asks.
"When I get into a car with Uber, I want to know, what is his background?" Neumeister said.
Neumeister said he often helps people request data, and he's filed hundreds of requests himself. He only expects issues such as body cams and Uber conflicts to increase.
"The technology is changing, and that's one of the things that has to be confronted," Neumeister said. "Bottom line, we regular people have the right to ask the government about ourselves."
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