The snooping into Minnesota driver’s license data became a scandal in 2012. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and others were using the database to check the photos and other personal details of TV personalities, politicians and others, sometimes to see whether someone had gained weight since their last renewal.
The breaches led to a wave of lawsuits and costly payouts. With only a few exceptions, here’s what the public didn’t find out: The identities of the government employees doing all the snooping.
The state Department of Public Safety refused to name names. It’s making creative use of a state law that was intended to protect the privacy of citizens, not government employees using private databases as their secret Facebook.
The department does provide a handy online form for people to see who’s been poking around their data. You can find out when your data has been accessed, and by which agency.
But you won’t see any names.
That’s not just creepy. It’s unfair.
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski was among a number of local elected officials and activists in Wabasha County who filed a lawsuit in 2013 accusing law enforcement agencies of trying to find dirt on them by looking through their driving records.
The lawsuit was sunk by an 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last September.
“We hit a stone wall because of our inability to discover who the individuals were who accessed this data,” said Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.
Former Wabasha County Commissioner Deb Roschen, who was also part of the lawsuit, wasn’t willing to give up there. While in office, Roschen had tangled with the sheriff and county officials over union contracts and spending.
Last year, she asked the public safety department for the names of the employees who snooped in the files of herself, her husband and her daughter 100 times.
The state turned her down. The agency cited an exemption in the public records law for “electronic access data.”
The provision was meant to shield private citizens who log on to government computers, not public employees, said former state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican who’s now a Dakota County commissioner. Otherwise, anybody might have access to the private data picked up by browser “cookies,” for example.
“It was enacted to protect the public from being tracked ... by government,” Holberg said.
Still, the language was broad enough to enable the snoopers to stay anonymous. It’s a glaring loophole that remains open, despite all of the stricter controls, audits and punishment of a handful of violators that occurred after the breaches came into view more than four years ago.
In October, Minnesota IPAD, the state agency that interprets the open records law, said DPS got it right. The agency wrote to Roschen and said “you cannot have access to the identities of the specific employees who accessed your record.”
The feeling of vulnerability was one reason Roschen decided not to run for office again.
“If the law was changed, it would deter some of this misuse,” she said.
That has a chance of happening this year. A bill sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, would add 12 words to the law that clarifies that government employees and contractors can’t stay in the shadows when they access private databases.
On Thursday, the measure advanced in the House committee that deals with data practices. No one testified against it.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.