What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to baird.helgeson@startribune.com.

Rybak moves to temporarily block license plate data

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: December 13, 2012 - 9:23 AM

Updated at 9:23 a.m.

A day after the city released a database containing more than two million license plate scans, Mayor R.T. Rybak wants the data reclassified as non-public immediately.

The Legislature is already expected to take action this session to reclassify license plate tracking data, which is derived from cameras mounted on local police squad cars across the state. But after complying with a request for Minneapolis' entire public database -- featuring dates, times and locations of all plates scanned in a 90 day period -- Rybak wants more immediate action.

He said the reclassification request was "already in the works" before Tuesday's data release, but "it does concern me." His request to temporarily reclassify the data makes the data non-public as soon as it is received by the Commissioner of Administration. They have not received it as of Thursday morning. If the commissioner approves, it would prevent the city from releasing the tracking data to members of the public. If the request is denied, the data becomes public again.

More than 80 requests have poured in since the Star Tribune first reported on the topic this August.

The mayor asked the city attorney to start working on the request this Tuesday. Once the request is sent, the commissioner has 45 days to make a decision and may decide it also applies to other government entities.

Rybak said the issue became clear to him after reading Star Tribune stories, one of which documented his own vehicle's locations throughout the city.

"One of the unintended consequences of adding these cameras was we were collecting data that -- through the way information becomes public in this state -- was making it possible for personal information to get out there," Rybak said.

The city has since reduced the length of time it keeps license plate tracking data from one year to 90 days. Rybak still expects the Legislature to act on the issue next session.

“We’re trying to step in and do something short-term," Rybak said. "But the real fix is at the Legislature.” 

The database contains more than 2 million reads on about 621,000 unique plates, according to Arthur D'Antonio III, who works in Web startups in California and was one of the people who requested the database.

Privacy advocate Rich Neumeister, who sits on a task force making recommendations about classification of the data, questions why police retain any data that is not a "hit." Privatizing it only eliminates a layer of scrutiny over the technology, he says.

"With it being private, there's no accountability and transparency of how law enforcement will use this kind of data," Neumeister said.

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