Last year, the Minneapolis Police Department got approval from the City Council to spend nearly $750,000 to rent space as an “incident command center” for the 2018 Super Bowl and 2019 Final Four events.
MPD publicly filed a public request for committee action in a public City Council committee with an audience of members of the public to get the money. And then, nine months later, after receiving a data request from a reporter, they decided—you know, we don’t want this to be public after all.
Well, tough. You can’t go back and change documentation of council proceedings and official records like meeting minutes. You can’t un-publish things from the internet. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. You can’t rewrite history. But they did anyway.
Over the weekend, the Minneapolis City Clerk’s office unilaterally altered the contents of the request for committee action, multiple meeting agendas, minutes, and records of proceedings, supporting documents, and they deleted video recordings of the meetings—which again, were open to a public audience—from its website and YouTube channel.
This story was an incredible scoop from the Star Tribune’s James Eli Shiffer, who noted the heavy redactions and deletions also meant the public wouldn’t be able to find out who the beneficiary of the money is, what some of the terms of the agreement were, and whether the City will be adequately reimbursed by the Super Bowl’s host committee.
These were critical facts available to and discussed by Council Members at the time of the vote, but through the manipulation and deletion of official records after the fact, these details are no longer public.
Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl approved the decision. “My team has gone online to pull the agenda, the marked agenda, the council proceedings, and everything that we’ve posted in this office,” he said, saying the redactions are permitted because he agreed with MPD’s argument that the address qualifies as ‘security information’ under an exemption to the state’s freedom of information law.
The website Critical Minneapolis published once-public documents before redactions were applied.
The facility’s address was the main detail the City aimed to erase from the internet: 511 11th Avenue South, also known as the Minnesota Technology Center. But the Minneapolis Police Department’s presence at the 511 Building was and will continue to be a poorly-kept secret.
The 511 Building is directly across the street from the U.S. Bank Stadium, and documents said MPD would also be renting “green space in front of the building” for “heated tents, restrooms and food for the various law enforcement agencies.” As Shiffer notes in his article, marked squad cars have been parked in designated spots outside the building. Not exactly undercover.
In aiming to hide this not-a-secret secret through redacting already-published public documents, the City seemed to attract more attention to the location of the command center than it likely would have ever received otherwise.
But no doubt, there is a security risk here: MPD’s presence in the building at all.
The 511 Building is a carrier hotel and internet exchange point, the Midwest’s most critical internet infrastructure north of Chicago. It’s home to the Midwest Internet Cooperative Exchange (MICE), which connects about 75 internet service providers and internet companies. The building’s datacenter is also home to servers for large Minnesota companies, financial institutions, and provides faster, local connectivity for services like Netflix, Amazon, and Google.
The U.S. Bank Stadium construction actually threatened the 511 Building’s existence, until its operators estimated it would cost nearly a billion dollars to replace the building and all of the fiber lines coming and going from the facility.
It seems to me that a building likely more vital to the economy than the U.S. Bank Stadium, with a replacement cost that rivals the stadium’s construction cost, might want to do all they can to avoid attention. Renting out space for a law enforcement command center seems about the opposite.
While the 511 Building is not the only carrier hotel in Minneapolis, it’s by far the largest. The internet is resilient and most carriers have multiple layers of redundancy. But if a situation necessitated shifting hundreds of gigabits of traffic per second to other infrastructure, it would cause major headache, risk temporary downtime, and possibly slow the internet down for many consumers and businesses across the region.
If MPD truly saw revelations of their command center’s location as a risk, that risk might best be kept away from the internet backbone.
The MPD’s contract to rent space in the facility redacts many details, including the names of other law enforcement agencies who might be in the building. This invitation of unnamed law enforcement agencies into the self-described “most connected building in Minnesota” creates a surveillance concern.
The National Security Agency has setup listening hubs to monitor telecommunications traffic in New York City, San Francisco, Germany, with other suspected sites in Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and more.
There’s nothing that specifically suggests or even hints the same is happening here, but attempts to watchdog law enforcement’s use of the facility would fail as the City of Minneapolis shields most every detail about their use of the building.
This secrecy is happening at a time when law enforcement in the region will see an influx of dollars to buy new equipment and fund new initiatives to protect national sports events. But after the teams pack up and leave town, the equipment stays. Transparency is warranted here.
At best, MPD had a lapse of judgment in publishing the address of their command center in the first place, which was on top of a bigger lapse of judgment in bringing undue attention and risk upon the region’s most vital internet infrastructure.
As MPD opens a command center at the 511 Building to protect the stadium, maybe they should open a second command center at the stadium to protect the 511 Building, too.
(Yes, that’s sarcasm.)