opinion

FBI redacts Public Records requests



Everyone knows how the NSA can intercept our personal information, from account numbers and Internet history to phone passwords.

But how would you feel if certain state agencies were cooperating with the FBI to keep civilians in the dark about public information?

Documents first acquired and reported on by the Minnesota Star Tribune in December 2014 reveal that the FBI is working with State Bureaus of Investigation to “prevent disclosure” of how cell-site simulators are used to determine a phone’s ?location and intercept calls.

That’s what’s happening in Minnesota. A division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has been pretty non-confrontational toward the FBI’s requests for secrecy.

Essentially, the FBI sent the BCA a set of conditions, which would include immediate notification if someone were attempting to obtain public information, and the BCA signed off effortlessly.

Let’s back up a bit: what are cell-site simulators and what are SBIs?

Cell-site simulators pose as cell towers so that, to your phone, the tracking device is indistinguishable from, say, AT&T. These devices intercept data on the Global System for Mobile Communications, which are networks used by AT&T and T-Mobile.

A lot of states have SBIs, and they aren’t new, either (the BCA formed in 1969). They are plainclothes, state-level detection agencies that work in criminal and civil cases inside the state and multiple jurisdictions.

This particular instance of shady FBI activity revolves around a June 2012 letter from the BCA in regards to the terms and conditions of leasing equipment from Harris Corporations — a tightlipped, federal contractor specializing in wireless electronics.

If the FBI wants to be ?notified of public requests for public governmental data, it has that right — it’s public, after all. But if the FBI wishes to continue narrowing the breadth of inquiry into its practices, it needs to be met with some resistance.

The redacted information of this particular letter denies the public knowledge of exactly what equipment is being leased and how much it would run.

The BCA’s defense for keeping the public unaware is painfully standard — how can we protect people from the bad guys if the bad guys know how we function? It’s a fair question if you’re willing to spy on every single citizen, which the U.S. government is cool with doing.

Does it not seem contrary that the FBI would want to use the Freedom of ?Information Act to deny ?information to the public?

The obsession with pre-emptive law enforcement incited by the wildly successful war on terror, coupled with bureaucratic mishandlings bound by policy documents drafted in backrooms, has created a formidably opaque governmental agency — one that has the discrete ?responsibility of protecting us, no less.

If it seems distressing that government agencies designed to protect us want us to know less and less about how they operate, I hope you find comfort in this quote from America’s favorite whistleblower, Edward Snowden:

“... I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents.”

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