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EFF to Minnesota Supreme Court: Sheriff Must Release Emails Documenting Biometric Technology Use

DEEPLINKS BLOG
July 17, 2017

A Minnesota sheriff’s office must release emails showing how it uses biometric technology so that the community can understand how invasive it is, EFF argued in a brief filed in the Minnesota Supreme Court on Friday.

The case, Webster v. Hennepin County, concerns a particularly egregious failure to respond to a public records request that an individual filed as part of a 2015 EFF and MuckRock campaign to track biometric technology use by law enforcement across the country.

EFF has filed two briefs in support of web engineer and public records researcher Tony Webster’s request, with the latest brief [.pdf] arguing that agencies must provide information contained in emails to help the public understand how a local sheriff uses biometric technology. The ACLU of Minnesota joined EFF on the brief.

As we write in the brief:

This case is not about whether or how the government may collect biometric data and develop and domestically deploy information-retrieval technology as a potential sword against the general public. That is just one debate we must have, but critical to it and all public debates is that it be informed by public [records]

The case began when Webster filed a request based on EFF’s letter template with Hennepin County, a jurisdiction that includes Minneapolis, host city of the 2018 Super Bowl.  He sought emails, contracts, and other records related to the use of technology that can scan and recognize fingerprints, faces, irises, and other forms of biometrics.

After the county basically ignored the request, Webster sued. An administrative law judge ruled in 2015 that the county had violated the state’s public records law both because it failed to provide documents to Webster and because it did not have systems in place to quickly search and disclose electronic records.

An intermediate appellate court ruled in 2016 that the county had to turn over the records Webster sought, but it reversed the lower court’s ruling that the county did not have adequate procedures in place to respond to public records requests.

Both Webster and the county appealed the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In its appeal, the county argues that public records requesters create undue burden on agencies when they specify that they search for particular key words or search terms.

EFF’s brief in support of Webster points out the flaws in the county’s search term argument. Having requesters identify specific search terms for documents they seek helps agencies conduct better searches for records while narrowing the scope of the request. This ultimately reduces the burden on agencies and leads to records being released more quickly.

EFF would like to thank attorneys Timothy Griffin and Thomas Burman of Stinson Leonard Street LLP for drafting the brief and serving as local counsel.

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