Open-government advocate resigns from fusion center panel

sykora2.jpgTroubled by what he calls the government’s cache of “surreptitious records,” a longtime advocate for open government has stepped down from an advisory group to the state’s fusion center.

Robert Sykora, a state public defender who helped draft the privacy rules for the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center, submitted his resignation Nov. 7. In the letter to MNJAC director Michael Bosacker, Sykora expressed concerns about the direction the fusion center is taking. The center is part of a nationwide, post-9/11 effort to gather information from law enforcement and the private sector.

Sykora’s decision comes after Minnesota’s public safety commissioner quietly restricted so-called “suspicious-activity reports” from public scrutiny.

Sykora, who was once a consultant for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, says he was also dismayed when MNJAC appeared to loosen its rules on the retention of data that didn’t rise to the level of reasonable suspicion.

Reached by phone, Sykora said the lessons of the Metro Gang Strike Force and a now-defunct statewide criminal database seem to be lost.

“Let’s look at history, and let’s look at things that have not worked out well when law enforcement keeps surreptious records of law-abiding people,” he said. “How can we keep making this mistake over and over again, believing Officer Friendly will always do the right thing?”

In his letter, Sykora acknowledged that Bosacker is sincere in his belief to protect public safety. Bosacker sent me an email Tuesday, saying Sykora was a valued member of MNJAC’s privacy policy committee since it began. “His insight and perspective through the years are greatly appreciated,” Bosacker wrote.

But how to strike that balance between the police’s need to gather information and the public’s need for accountability is one thing the two men apparently can’t agree on.

Sykora will continue to be involved in the discussions over Minnesota’s decision on whether to share its incident data with the FBI.

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