FBI wants Minnesota police records for national database

The seal of the FBI.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A state task force Friday will weigh whether to dump millions of local police records from Minnesota into a federal criminal and investigative database.

The FBI has asked Minnesota officials to opt into the Law Enforcement National Data Exchange, a vast data-sharing system that the bureau calls a one-stop shop for law enforcement and crime analysts. FBI officials say it will help local police investigate cases involving people who are suspected of similar crimes in other states.

But federal law enforcement officers, including those investigating immigration offenses, also have access to the records. That concerns advocates for privacy rights and civil liberties.

"When it starts going out into databases accessible by thousands of law enforcement people, you don't know what the consequences are," said Robert Sykora, chief information officer for the Minnesota Board of Public Defense.

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Over the years, Skyora has heard lots of stories from clients who say they've been wrongly accused. Among them is a story that comes from an attorney friend who took his young daughter for a haircut.

"The beautician saw what the beautician thought was semen in her hair," he said. "The beautician saved a sample of it, put it in a bag, and called police, and the father was then approached in a criminal sexual conduct investigation by the police."

Although the officers determined that the substance was paste, they created a police report with a title and content indicating it was related to criminal sexual misconduct, Sykora said.

"Imagine the consequences to that father if the police report should ever get out," he said.

Sykora said if everyone is following the rules, that kind of unsubstantiated report from Minnesota should never make its way into the federal database, also known as N-DEx. But he remains generally skeptical about broadening access to incident data — including incidents and arrests that never result in convictions.

As a member of the state's criminal and juvenile justice information task force, Sykora will be among those who recommend whether Minnesota should feed records from its own statewide Comprehensive Incident-Based Reporting System to the FBI.

The problem for Minnesota is that the state database is relatively new and still growing, said Carolyn Jackson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. It was created in 2005 after the state's previous incident database was shut down due to concerns about privacy and security.

Jackson said the state system has strong protections to prevent misuse, but it hasn't been thoroughly vetted yet.

"Let's make sure the bugs are out of it, and it's working well and doing what it's designed to do, before we go sharing it with other people," she said.

The state network currently has four million people in the system. Jackson worries that it could result in improper targeting of people of color. Race is not a required data field, but figures provided by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension show African-Americans make up nearly 23 percent of the individuals whose race was reported.

Currently the state data, collected from 117 agencies, is restricted to law enforcement agencies in Minnesota, so any move to share it with the federal officials would require a change in law.

Also, because the information in the state system is owned by the submitting law enforcement agencies, any decision to send data to the national system would require approval from the individual agency, said Jill Oliveira, a spokeswoman for the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Yet even privacy and civil liberties advocates say there are some good arguments in favor of collaboration.

The FBI likens the national system to a sophisticated search engine for law enforcement. An officer can punch in a suspect's nickname, car description, or other factors and find matches in other states.

For example, it would allow an investigator from another state to examine records on someone in Minnesota who is suspected of insurance fraud, said N-DEx's program manager, Jeffrey Lindsey. If the investigator searches for the name and discovers the person was listed as a victim of insurance fraud in Florida and Maine, for example, that provides valuable information.

"Now we're starting to put together pieces of a puzzle where maybe — maybe — Jane Doe is involved in a larger conspiracy to defraud insurance companies across the country," he said.

Lindsey said there are controls in place to prevent improper use of the data. Investigators in other states couldn't use the information from a Minnesota agency's report to make an arrest or file for a search warrant without first getting permission from that agency, he said.

About 4,000 agencies submit records to the national N-DEx system, including a handful of states with centralized sharing systems — among them Tennessee, Delaware, and Texas. Law enforcement officers from federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, can also access the records. That worries immigration advocates, who want people who are here illegally to call police without fear of retribution.

FBI officials say it's up to the states and local agencies to set limitations on the data sent to N-DEx — and which agencies can see it.

The task force only has the power to recommend how the state should proceed. The Legislature could take up the issue when it reconvenes early next year.