Minn. crime study ends after theft of victim data
- Article by: BRIAN BAKST
- Associated Press
- January 17, 2014 - 12:20 PM
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A University of Minnesota law professor has apologized to violent crime victims and witnesses after a computer with sensitive information of nearly 300 people was stolen from his office, but he said Friday that there's no indication the thief has accessed the data.
Criminologist Barry Feld, a prominent juvenile justice scholar, was collecting data from closed case records for a study on law enforcement interrogation techniques when the laptop, a scanner and external hard drive were taken last February. His research, which required his team to sign confidentiality agreements before obtaining the data, has since been terminated.
"I did not properly protect the data," Feld told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday. The incident was first reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
A police report said the equipment wasn't locked and was stolen from under a desk in the office Feld shares with several research assistants. University police made no arrests in the case nor have they had any leads, according to a school spokesman.
Earlier this month, Feld sent letters to 119 people whose names, birth dates and addresses were contained in scanned records. They were offered free credit monitoring in case of identity theft. Prosecutors in Hennepin and Ramsey counties had to recreate lists of people affected, accounting for the lapse between the theft and notification. Up-to-date contact information for 175 people couldn't be found. University spokesman Matt Hodson said the school is still working to find those people.
The records stem from 2005 criminal cases involving murder, rape and aggravated robbery in the state's two most populous counties. Much of the data was previously considered public, but some would have been kept private if Feld hadn't obtained special access for his study. He said his research assistants were six weeks into scanning records from archived files when the theft occurred. They hadn't begun analyzing the data, which complicated efforts to determine the scope of the breach.
Feld said he doesn't believe the theft was related to the underlying research. He said he doubts that the information was accessed because the laptop would have triggered an alert if it had been connected to the Internet. But he acknowledged his presumption might not ease concerns of those whose information was compromised. Five people, including the mother of a rape victim, have contacted him to ask questions about the breach and his now-abandoned research.
"I'm sure that receiving these letters has reawakened very painful memories for many of these people from a hideous experience that happened to them 10 years ago," Feld said. "I'm very, very sorry that the theft and the loss of this data have precipitated the reawakening of those memories."
David Brown, chief deputy in the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, assigned two clerks to recreate the list. Brown said the office was disappointed that the information wasn't kept more secure and, in consultation with Feld, stopped supplying records going forward.
"It was an important study but given what happened with the data we had to terminate it," Brown said. "Protecting witness and crime victims is our priority."
Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, said staff identified 110 people who might have had personal details disclosed. So far, he said the office hasn't heard directly from anyone about concerns to their safety or privacy.
© 2014 Star Tribune