Editorial: A costly lesson in data privacy abuse

  • Updated: November 9, 2012 - 5:51 PM

Cities have paid handsomely to settle ex-cop's lawsuit.

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The Minneapolis City Council is the latest city to approve a settlement over improperly accessed records.

Photo: Gehrz, Jim, Star Tribune

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More than $1 million. That's what area cities have agreed to pay so far to settle a lawsuit in which a former police officer alleged that other cops violated her privacy because they were curious about her looks.

With taxpayer dollars, local governments have paid that jaw-dropping price because they failed to police the use of private data by their own employees.

Ex-police officer Anne Rasmusson sued 16 metro-area jurisdictions after she learned that their workers -- mostly cops -- improperly accessed her driver's license information over a six-year period. Last month St. Paul officials agreed to pay her $385,000, and more recently Minneapolis approved a $392,500 payout. Settlements from the other jurisdictions so far have totaled nearly $300,000.

Federal statutes prohibit non-work-related review of the information and outline minimum damages of about $2,500 per unauthorized view.

If Rasmusson's information had been reviewed a couple of times, it may not have created such a stir. But the staggering number of hits helped make a compelling case that Rasmusson's privacy had been violated. Over six years, her information was viewed more than 400 times by 140 officers with several jurisdictions, her suit claimed.

Rasmusson is a former Eden Prairie and St. Paul police officer and was once married to a Minneapolis cop. The highest number of improper lookups came from the core Twin Cities, where 46 Minneapolis police employees and 61 St. Paul police employees accessed the data, Rasmusson's attorney said. The improper snooping made her uncomfortable, which caused her to avoid gatherings with former coworkers and move to a different home.

Most of the officers named in the complaint did not have legitimate work-related reasons for calling up the data. It appeared that most of the searches were done merely out of curiosity. Court records show that one Eden Prairie officer encouraged coworkers to look up Rasmusson "because she was very attractive and so they could see that 'she's changed and she's got a new look.'''

In other words, gossip that spread like wildfire among cops prompted dozens of them to use work time and equipment to peek at Rasmusson's photo, address, height, weight and driving record.

Once the lawsuit was filed, some departments responded by talking to the offending employees. Others imposed discipline that including suspension.

A St. Paul police spokesperson said the department is "reinforcing to officers the proper use of the Minnesota DVS (Driver and Vehicle Services) system'' and that all cops received additional training this year. Minneapolis police officials said that as of the first of this year, officers were informed that they could be suspended or fired because of improper use of driver's license data.

To help local governments do a better job protecting citizen information, the DVS is now keeping track of files that receive large numbers of inquiries.

This costly episode should put all public employers and employees who have access to citizen data on notice. Protected citizen information should only be used for legitimate work purposes -- not as an unauthorized Facebook account.

  • MILLION-DOLLAR PEEKS

    "We knew that there was quite a range of potential risk in this case. ... So we decided that the settlement was well within that range and was the wisest course to follow."

    Minneapolis City Attorney SUSAN SEGAL, who added that the city weighed the potential costs of moving forward with the suit, which would have included staff and police time and the risk of paying attorneys' fees.

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