Access policy changes for Minnesota driver’s licenses and vehicle registration data have the auto insurance industry warning of higher rates and car dealers saying safety recalls could be hampered.
In the name of enhanced data security, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety plans to end subscription-based bulk sales of the records in March and require specific queries at $5 per lookup for potentially millions of searches annually. Companies that amass the records for databases and those that rely heavily on the information are lobbying Gov. Mark Dayton to halt the policy switch and haven’t ruled out going to court if he doesn’t.
The dispute, which has played out mostly in private until this week, is wrapped in a bigger debate over how to prevent misuse of government records and protect privacy for licensed drivers and vehicle owners.
“I think people would have to have their head in the sand to not realize that data security is a huge issue for the citizens of our state and all around the country,” the agency’s deputy commissioner, Mary Ellison, said in an interview Thursday.
“The knee-jerk reaction is that the sky is falling,” she added. “Everyone who gets this data now feels like they’re getting it for a legitimate use and their use is safe. But unless we can really have the ability to audit and make sure the data isn’t being abused, we have the obligation to take the steps we are taking.”
She said officials have long been concerned about supplying vendors with entire state databases when they only need select details. Discussions over a new approach began more than a year ago, but many vendors learned of the particulars in letters sent late last year.
Bulk buyers were originally advised the new policy would start this month, but it was postponed until March 10. In the meantime, groups with a big stake in the switch approached senior aides to Dayton last week about intervening. Spokesman Matt Swenson said Dayton hasn’t decided on any action after top staff listened to stakeholder concerns.
Rate increases foreseen
Among the organizations raising objections is the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, which represents auto and life insurance companies.
Mark Kulda, the federation’s vice president of public affairs, said agents who now pay less than $1 per query to companies that get information on driver licensure, traffic infractions and car ownership in bulk form every day regard the markup as unfair. Kulda said people shopping for insurance often lead to multiple lookups because each company needs to do its own. So if someone seeks quotes from five companies, the fees would total $25.
“That is certainly something that’s going to be passed along to consumers,” Kulda said.
He expects slower turnaround of the data and fears it will be available only during standard government hours, not around the clock as it is now.
Ellison said the department is confident it can promptly handle the requests.
“If they need millions of queries, we are fully able and capable of doing that,” she said. The agency maintains 11 million driver’s license and vehicle title records in its system.
In an advisory to vendors last week, the department said it was developing a new subscription service that will alert them to changes in driver records to help them target searches. The department hasn’t set the cost of that service and said it probably won’t be ready until May.
For car dealers, the arrangement poses a different challenge: helping auto manufacturers alert people to safety recalls.
Scott Lambert, executive vice president at the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, said if bulk vehicle data isn’t available he’s concerned that some people wouldn’t get timely notification about problems that carmakers decide need prompt attention.
“We know who we sell the car to when it leaves the showroom,” he said. “We don’t know who that person sells the car to.”
Ellison downplayed the concern, saying searches can be tailored by vehicle type.
The Minnesota Newspaper Association argues the media would face a setback. Some newspapers and television stations have bulk subscriptions now for reporting purposes.
“If we can’t get the downloads in bulk, certain types of database analysis can’t be done on a broad-scale basis on issues related to motor vehicles and Minnesota drivers,” said association lawyer Mark Anfinson. “You need the whole database to find trends, patterns and correlations. It scuttles the whole ability to do that kind of reporting.”
Ellison said there won’t be special accommodations made for media.