EFF tells Minnesota court that sheriff must reveal biometric usage
20 July 2017 15:35 GMT

A privacy group has told Minnesota Supreme Court that the sheriff must release emails documenting all use of biometric technology.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued in a brief filed in the court for the case Webster v. Hennepin County.

The case concerns what EFF is "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  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 EFF writes 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.

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.