Scarcely a day goes by without news coverage of how information about individuals is being gathered and potentially abused by government officials at the federal, state and local levels. At the same time, with the Legislature in session, numerous proposals are bubbling up that would take historically public data and seal it off from the public.

One proposal would close public access to police response and incident data for 90 days after the information was created. This is the basic information police generate when they respond to a call for help. As an example, imagine you heard gunshots and screams from a neighbor’s house. You call the police and they respond. Would you now want to wait 90 days to find out what happened? Wouldn’t you want to know immediately if your own family was in danger?

Another bill would set new parameters around the use of “mug shots.” These are the photos that police take when people are arrested. Unscrupulous people have been misusing the photos. They post them on the Web, then ask the individuals featured in the photos to pay to have them taken down. Unfortunately, rather than focusing solely on the bad actions of those who would profit, the bill could impede all of the potential good that the public derives from the use of these records. If a robber, thief or sex offender moved into your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to know what they look like? The bill also could infringe upon free speech by requiring anyone who obtains a mug shot to register with the police all locations where the photograph would be published, or else face monetary penalties.

Yet another bill would close off public access to accident reports. The insurance industry says that unscrupulous people are using these records to commit fraud (“Insurance fraud grows, and Minnesotans take the hit,” March 24). Although the public would lose access, the insurance industry would protect its own interest with access to the records.

The common thread that runs through these bills is the idea that the way you prevent bad behavior is by cutting off access to information, not by regulating the bad behavior. When the supporters of these initiatives don’t have the votes to criminalize or otherwise punish the bad actors, they block access to the data. This results in a raft of unintended consequences that compromise the public’s right to information as well as to keep an eye on what government is up to.

Meanwhile, technology is galloping ahead and creating new issues about how law enforcement gathers, keeps and uses data. Police in Minnesota are already using license-plate readers and cellphone trackers to gather vast troves of information on the guilty and innocent alike. Few standards exist to govern why or when authorities gather this information, what uses they put it to or how long they keep it.

All of these are complex issues without easy solutions. They deserve careful study and thoughtful evaluation by lawmakers who have developed expertise in the areas of data practices and data privacy. That’s why now is the time to establish a Legislative Commission on Data Practices and Personal Data Protection. The commission is the brainchild of Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican from Lakeville. Holberg is a longtime champion of an individual’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know. She is joined in this effort by the chief Senate author, Scott Dibble, a DFLer from Minneapolis. The commission has received bipartisan support in both bodies, which is notable in the highly politically charged era we are living in.

The commission would allow these difficult issues to be fully and publicly scrutinized outside the crucible of the legislative session. All stakeholders would have a full opportunity to express their views and to seek reasonable compromises. Balancing the public’s right to know with an individual’s right to privacy is an extraordinarily difficult and important proposition, but one the commission could achieve.


Gary Hill is chairman of the Minnesota Coalition On Government Information, a network of individuals committed to open access to public information.