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Law enforcement asking for data privacy flexibility

State lawmakers may consider a special category for data to allow law enforcement more investigative options, says Sen. Mary Olson.

"With all the intertwining of how we're handling data today, it's very important that we look at all sides of this issue very carefully," Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said Friday in an interview.

She attended last week in St. Paul a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension-hosted informational hearing on data practices concerns and the use of databases in law enforcement.

Olson is chairwoman of a Senate subcommittee on data practices.

The Legislature needs to "make sure law enforcement has access to the information they need but that it doesn't get out into other hands and/or have the ability to get used in a way that could have unintended negative consequences for people," she said.

The hearing was designed to give legislators a prelude to the discussions that will be occurring during the legislative session surrounding data practice and security.

"As technology and data gathering techniques advance, we have an unprecedented amount of information that can be used by law enforcement agencies to solve and possibly prevent crimes," said Olson. "However, these technological advancements raise several privacy concerns. Law enforcement agencies have to walk a fine line between public safety and the privacy of citizens."

An example cited at the hearing is of a tip called into law enforcement from a store clerk that a person ordered a large tank of ammonia, a farm fertilizer, but the clerk knows the person has no connection to farming. Large amounts of ammonia can also be used to make a bomb.

"It raises their antenna, as far as something that might be worth looking into," Olson said. While the public safety would be served by checking out the tip, "at the same time there could be a purposely innocent explanation. Maybe this person's uncle is a farmer and he just happened to be ordering the shipment for a relative."

In those circumstances, the information given to law enforcement as a tip shouldn't be "identified with that person as a potential terrorist on someone's records somewhere forever," Olson said.

The BCA's presentation included a session focusing on the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center. MNJAC is responsible for handling multiple databases for law enforcement agencies in Minnesota. MNJAC is federally funded and was established after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to help law enforcement agencies share information.

It's one of 72 "fusion centers" nationally established by the Department of Homeland Security, with one in Minnesota.

"It's essentially an entity that is under our Department of Public Safety, but it's job is coordinating communication," Olson said.

Legislators were given examples of coordinated communications, such as when the Hell's Angels held a conference near Cloquet last summer, and the Carlton County Sheriff's Department wasn't ready to handle that type of crowd.

"MNJAC was able to not only to help them coordinate to get assistance from other law enforcement agencies, but also to help them with background information and security-type of information that they could get from around the country," she said.

However, data privacy advocates argue that while agency information sharing is great for security, it can be harmful to the privacy of law abiding individuals.

"The question of what information should be collected and how long that information should be stored has been an ongoing discussion within the BCA as well as at the Capitol," said Olson. "The criminal intelligence data bill was introduced last session and will most likely see lengthy debate and discussion in my subcommittee as these privacy issues affect everyone in the state."

Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, authored a bill that seeks to define criminal intelligence data, classifying it as confidential, private non-public data. It also defines how the information may be used, shared and disseminated.

"The argument that law enforcement is making is that we have a need to develop a third category of data classification," says Olson. It would be for "kinds of information that don't automatically qualify under present law as private information that they have a right to keep private while an investigation is pending, and yet at the same time they want to be able to hold this information ... but not necessarily treating it as public information."

It's a balancing act, Olson says, as there's a danger if the state, or law enforcement, can keep private information that should be public.

"When we take information that used to be public and we're saying it's no longer going to be public, then we also have a group of people, including journalists, who are concerned about the public's right to know and the possibility of having government keeping things secret, because sometimes we want the light of public exposure to shine on something," Olson said.

Betzold's bill, which did not get a hearing last year, is only a starting point, Olson said. "No one's pushing the bill in its exact form ... we're considering a starting place for discussion."

She's not sure if it will be finalized in the 2010 session, but said the issue will receive ongoing discussion.

A similar issue at the federal level has a bill moving through Congress that would require the FBI t6o share data on 98,058 unresolved missing person cases from its national database. The bill would create a national centralized database for all missing person and unidentified cases that the public can access on the Internet.

That may set the stage for a national standard, but Olson said Minnesota's law still needs attention.

"States generally are allowed to be more protective of citizen's rights, they just can't be less protective," she said. "In Minnesota, for the most part, when it comes to protecting data privacy, we like to make sure we are very protective of that right."