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House passes protections for vehicle tracking, data misuse

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: May 17, 2013 - 3:46 PM

Updated at 3:46 p.m.

Privacy concerns drove a bipartisan vote in the Minnesota House Friday to stop police from using controversial vehicle tracking technology to log the locations of innocent people.

Also on Friday, the House passed a bill attempting to shed light on misuse of private data by public employees. It came on the heels of several high-profile breaches to the state’s driver’s license database by police officers and other government workers.

The vehicle tracking bill creates the state’s first regulations surrounding license plate readers, which police across Minnesota use to spot criminals in real-time. The small devices are often attached to the hoods of squad cars, scanning every plate they see against a database of wanted vehicles.

A Star Tribune investigation in 2012 revealed, however, that cops were also storing massive amounts of location data on non-criminals — all of it publicly available. Friday’s bill, sponsored by Lakeville Republican Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, makes that non-criminal data private and prevents cops from retaining it altogether.

The debate on the license plate reader bill focused on the appropriate time cops should retain location data on vehicles not sought by law enforcement. Law enforcement groups have argued that historical data is an important tool to help solve crimes, since it allows them to scan the past whereabouts of criminal suspects who materialize after a crime.

Rep. Deb Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, pushed unsuccessfully an amendment that would let police keep non-criminal data for 180 days. A Senate bill, which may come up for a vote this weekend, allows police to retain non-criminal location data for 90 days.

But Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, countered it was not worth compromising the privacy of innocent people, who comprise a vast majority of the vehicles being tracked. Last June, for example, only 6,100 of the 805,000 scans by plate readers in Minneapolis matched a database of wanted vehicles.

“This is about our constitutional liberties,” Lesch said. “It’s not up to the police to know where you’ve been for the past 180 days, unless they have some reasonable suspicion or probable cause to have that information.”

The license plate bill also forces police departments to disclose the locations of their readers, as well as the times and volume of data collection.

The other bill passed on Friday requires government entities that identify data misuse to create a public report documenting the breach — including the names of any employees who were disciplined.

Law enforcement groups aggressively lobbied to eliminate a provision requiring that governments post the report on their websites. An amendment to strike that language, sponsored by police officer Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, succeeded, meaning only victims of the data breach will be notified of the report’s existence. Anyone can request it, however.

Schoen said it would invite unneeded criticism on small town police officers and their families, as well as possibly reduce disciplinary actions.

“Why would...you want to protect the bad actors?” Holberg asked her colleagues, urging them to oppose the amendment. “This not people just accused. These are individuals that violate these standards and there was disciplinary action. Why would we make that not readily available to the public?”

Holberg also removed a provision from the bill that allowed people to obtain an audit trail of the employees who accessed their private data.

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