The amount of personal information the state and law enforcement agencies collect on average citizens is becoming an increasing concern to a strong majority of Minnesotans, according to a new Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
More than 60 percent of adults said they worry about the data being collected and their ability to maintain a level of personal privacy. Of those, more than a fourth said they were “very concerned,” while 37 percent said they were somewhat concerned. Another 36 percent said they either were not too concerned or not concerned at all.
“I think there are some things that are pertinent for law enforcement to have and some things that I don’t see are any of their business,” said Jodi Denzer, a 35-year-old banker from St. Paul Park.
There is a sizable gender gap on privacy concerns, with 70 percent of men saying they are either very or somewhat concerned about growing data gathering, compared with 56 percent of women.
Those most concerned about personal privacy are Minnesotans who don’t identify with any political party. More of them — 36 percent — said they were very concerned, the highest of any demographic group surveyed. An equal number said they were somewhat concerned. Democrats tend to be less concerned about law enforcement collection data than any other political group, with only 14 percent of Democrats saying they are very concerned. Among Republicans, 34 percent said they were very concerned, while nearly a third of Independents said they have serious privacy concerns.
The poll surveyed 800 Minnesota adults between Feb. 10 and 12 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Three-fourths were reached through a land line, one fourth by cellphone.
Leonard Peterson, 66, a retired statistician from Maplewood who generally leans DFL, said he’s “not especially” concerned about the issue.
“I don’t think they over-collect,” he said. “In some ways they might, but in general, I don’t think they’re intrusively collecting information about people.”
Younger people, not surprisingly, are the least concerned about privacy. But they’re also not that far behind everyone else. Among those 18 to 34 years of age, 57 percent worry about privacy either a lot or somewhat. That’s just a little less than those aged 35 to 49, where 61 percent are either very or somewhat concerned.
Lawmakers to tackle privacy
With near-daily revelations about the scope and depth of data collection here and nationally, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers is taking a keener look at data collection with an eye toward reining in high-tech snooping. Worries have been fed by recent, well-documented incidents of law enforcement officers and state employees who snooped into drivers’ license data without cause.
Even legal methods are getting scrutiny, like license plate-reading technology that can track vehicle locations, Global Positioning System tracking devices, and cellphone exploitation devices with names like “Kingfish,” that surreptitiously collect and store the information of cellphone users in a given area.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, and Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, have drafted a bill that would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before tracking a cellphone’s location, with exceptions for certain emergencies.
Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul and chair of the House Civil Law Committee, said it’s likely other bills will be drafted to regulate law enforcement data, including how long license plate reader data are stored.
“I think it’s huge, I think it’s absolutely huge,” Lesch said of the poll results. “The people who are going to have the biggest problem with this are the ones who are tangibly affected … but I would imagine the vast majority of that 60 percent has never been directly affected by police surveillance. So the fact that they see it as a problem is very important.”
Law enforcement officials are already sounding the alarm about the consequences of restricting their ability to gather information. Some have already testified at the Capitol that data are used to catch criminals, not spy on everyday citizens, and that tying their hands could render their surveillance tools useless.
Jeff McCormick, president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, acknowledged that recent breaches of drivers’ license data could trigger a backlash against those who gather information.
“It would be fair to say that police departments across the state are making sure the information we’re gathering is used in the proper way,” he said. “From an overall data aspect, I think law enforcement in general is very concerned about making sure we safeguard the information we have.”
Lori Olson, a 55-year-old nurse from Lake Park, said she doesn’t pay much attention to privacy issues.
“Frankly,” Olson said, “I think people worry too much.”