A fragment of a license plate number. A fuzzy description of a vehicle’s make and color. When a child abduction or another high-profile crime has taken place, law enforcement authorities may have mere scraps of information to work with and precious minutes ticking away to track down a perpetrator and possibly save a life.
In these pressure-filled situations, investigators understandably often turn to a potent tool of the modern age — comprehensive, user-friendly databases that can scan a nation’s worth of vehicle and driver’s license data, as well as other relevant info, to quickly make connections and narrow an investigation’s focus.
One of the main database services, called CLEAR, is run by Thomson Reuters, which has major operations in Eagan. Services like it are a mainstay for law enforcement and fraud investigators. Insurers and the car industry rely on the information to quickly notify vehicle owners of safety recalls. News organizations, including the Star Tribune, also rely on the data for watchdog journalism.
That’s why it’s so disturbing that the state Department of Public Safety is rapidly moving forward with an untested policy that would hinder timely access to the data for organizations with public-minded uses deemed permissible under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.
Citing privacy concerns, the agency on May 12 will begin a process to end most bulk transfers of driver’s license information to authorized users, while also putting new restrictions on motor vehicle data. While it sounds benign, the plan would compromise the databases’ value and the missions of those relying on them, which ought to alarm all Minnesotans.
Lawmakers have sensibly proposed legislation that would hit the pause button to allow careful study of the consequences. If the new policy is adopted, Minnesota could have some of the most sweeping restrictions on this public data in the nation. Moving with caution is key.
Unfortunately, the Senate bill is stalled because of an ill-considered vote against it by the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St Louis Park. The bill’s lead author is Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury. Companion legislation in the House is carried by respected data privacy expert Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville.
On March 28, the eight-member Senate Judiciary Committee listened to Thomson Reuters, the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association and the Minnesota Newspaper Association argue persuasively about the need to take a breath and understand the change’s ramifications.
Mary Ellison, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, spoke in favor of the policy. She argued for enhanced data privacy and the need to better audit private-sector users of the data. She also touted the department’s willingness to provide some data on a much more limited basis.
It’s as if committee members didn’t hear the credible rebuttals of Ellison’s concerns. The industry is not only willing to have its existing privacy safeguards audited, it’s also willing to pay for department resources to do this. That companies with access to this data are barred by federal law from selling the information for marketing purposes also seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Companies without access to this data, such as car repair chains, could gather similar info from customer transactions and sell it. These firms could well be the ones driving the consumer complaints about marketing cited by Ellison that appear to use consumers’ vehicle data. Yet the new policy would do nothing about this practice, while hindering responsible users of the state’s data.
More important, the committee members ignored troubling concerns about the department’s ability to process information quickly for public safety purposes. The current database services are quick, comprehensive, user-friendly and available around the clock. Blithe assurances from Ellison about the department’s ability to match this contrasted sharply with the concerns raised by the bill’s proponents.
At the very least, there is a serious disagreement about whether the new policy would compromise timely access and analysis critical for public safety. Hitting pause is sensible until these issues can be sorted out. If the Legislature isn’t willing to step up, the chief of the state’s executive branch, Gov. Mark Dayton, needs to prevent the agency from acting too hastily.