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State makes license plate tracking data private

  • Blog Post by: Eric Roper
  • March 18, 2013 - 5:43 PM

A state agency ruled Monday that vehicle location data derived from police license plate readers across Minnesota should not be accessible to the public.

The ruling by the Department of Administration comes three months after Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak asked the state to reclassify the data, which the Star Tribune first reported was public by default in August. Monday's reclassification expires in 2015, but state lawmakers are working on legislation to make the information permanently private.

License plate readers, which are mounted on police squad cars, bridges and elsewhere, store records on every vehicle they spot on the road. Their primary purpose is to help police identify criminals in real time, but they also log sensitive location information on law-abiding citizens.

Rybak asked for the data to be reclassified after the police department received many requests for vehicle location data, following Star Tribune coverage of the issue. The reclassification request itself made the data temporarily non-public. It came a day after the city handed over the entire database, containing more than two million plate scans, to several requestors. 

In granting Rybak's request to make vehicle photos and locations private -- and extending that classification to every government in the state -- Department of Administration commissioner Spencer Cronk also denied several other portions of the city's request.

Those included the locations of license plate readers, their device numbers, the number of times a vehicle was captured by license plate readers and "any hit information," which Cronk said is already classified by other sections of law.

Legislators, meanwhile, are grappling with how to regulate license plate readers beyond merely the classification. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, originally sponsored a bill mandating that location data on non-criminals be destroyed immediately.

Law enforcement groups, noting that criminal suspects take time to materialize after a crime, pushed for a longer retention period. The latest version of Dibble's bill gives police 90 days to hold location data -- now private -- on non-criminals.

Dibble's bill also said police must disclose where the readers are installed; Minneapolis cops refuse to disclose the location of their stationary readers. This, too, was eliminated under pressure from law enforcement groups.

The modified bill requires police to disclose the times of day that the readers collect data and how many vehicles each of them scanned.

The House companion to Dibble's bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, will get a hearing in the Civil Law committee on Wednesday morning.

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