Minnesota Bills Would Limit Warrantless Electronic Data Collection, Hinder Federal Surveillance

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Bills filed in the Minnesota House and Senate would limit the warrantless use of stingray devices to track people’s location and sweep up electronic communications and more broadly protect the privacy of electronic data. The proposed law would also hinder the federal surveillance state.

A bipartisan coalition of 11 representatives introduced House Bill 1197 (HF1197) on Feb. 14. A bipartisan coalition of five Senators introduced the companion bill, Senate Bill 1431 (SF1431) on Feb. 18.  Titled the “Minnesota Electronic Communications Privacy Act,” the legislation would limit two methods of electronic data collection.

HF1197/SF1431 would help block the use of cell site simulators, known as “stingrays.” These devices essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device.

The bills would require police to obtain a warrant or wiretap order before deploying a stingray device, unless they have the explicit permission of the owner or authorized possessor of the device, or if the device is lost or stolen. The legislation includes an exception to the warrant requirement for emergency situations. Even then, police must apply for a warrant within 3 days and destroy any information obtained if the court denies the application.

HF1197/SF1431 would also bar law enforcement agencies from compelling a service provider or any person other than the owner of the device without a warrant or wiretap order. This would include actual communication content such as phone conversations, text messages and email, location information and other metadata such as IP addresses pertaining to a person or device participating in the communication.

A service provider could still share information voluntarily under the law. Law enforcement would have to destroy such information within 90 days unless it gets the consent of the owner or a court order.

The legislation provides a legal remedy for anybody whose data is obtained in violation of the law. Any person in a trial, hearing, or proceeding could move to suppress any electronic communication information obtained or retained in violation of the United States Constitution, Minnesota Constitution, or the Minnesota Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Rep. Cal Bahr (R-East Bethel), along with a coalition of four Republicans, introduced a more limited measure. House Bill 1296 (HF1296) would prohibit the federal government from accessing any data held by the state and classified as “not public” without a warrant. This would include “any government data classified by statute, federal law, or temporary classification as confidential, private, nonpublic, or protected nonpublic.” Passage of this bill would limit the information the state could pass on to the federal government.

IMPACT ON FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE PROGRAMS

The federal government funds the vast majority of state and local stingray programs, attaching one important condition. The feds require agencies acquiring the technology to sign non-disclosure agreements. This throws a giant shroud over the program, even preventing judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys from getting information about the use of stingrays in court. The feds actually instruct prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported in April 2015, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal non-disclosure agreement.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Cabreja about the agreement.

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cabreja said.

As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

The experience of a Pinellas County, Florida, man further highlights the shroud of secrecy around the use of stingray devices, along with the potential for abuse of power inherent in America’s law enforcement community.

The feds sell the technology in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts. With non-disclosure agreements in place, most police departments refuse to release any information on the use of stingrays. But information obtained from the Tacoma Police Department revealed that it uses the technology primarily for routine criminal investigations.

Some privacy advocates argue that stingray use can never happen within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment because the technology necessarily connects to every electronic device within range, not just the one held by the target. And the information collected by these devices undoubtedly ends up in federal databases.

The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, stingrays create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

The federal government encourages and funds stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby undoubtedly gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on stingray use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. Passage of HF1197/SF1431 would strike a major blow to the surveillance state and would be a win for privacy.

PARALLEL CONSTRUCTION

By allowing defendants to suppress information obtained in violation of the law, HF1197/SF1431 would hinder one practical effect of NSA spying in Minnesota.

Reuters revealed the extent of such NSA data sharing with state and local law enforcement in an August 2013 article. According to documents obtained by the news agency, the NSA passes information to police through a formerly secret DEA unit known Special Operations Divisions and the cases “rarely involve national security issues.” Almost all of the information involves regular criminal investigations, not terror-related investigations.

In other words, not only does the NSA collect and store this data, using it to build profiles, the agency encourages state and local law enforcement to violate the Fourth Amendment by making use of this information in their day-to-day investigations.

This is “the most threatening situation to our constitutional republic since the Civil War,” Binney said.

WHAT’S NEXT

HF1197 was referred to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division. SF1431 was referred to the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. The bills will have to pass their respective committees before moving forward in the legislative process.

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