A rash of charges have been leveled against local governments across the state — including Winona County and the city of Winona — alleging that government employees abused access to private data in state-run drivers license databases, targeting politicians, outspoken citizens, and letter-to-the-editor authors. Who has looked at your private data? Thanks to the state's government transparency laws, Minnesotans can find out (see sidebar).
The databases are intended for law enforcement officers and other government workers to use in the course of their jobs. Use of the private data, which includes criminal records, driver's license photos, and social security numbers, and some medical information, is prohibited except in executing lawful duties, and federal law allows for at least $2,500 in damages per illegal access or "ping." Last month, a high profile suit alleging hundreds of illegal "pings" was filed against Wabasha County, Winona County, and the city of Winona on behalf of Representative Steve Drazkowski, Wabasha County Board members, members of their families, and others.
Earlier this month, the Winona City Council forwarded the latest claim against the city to its insurance provider, the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC). LMC insures for most Minnesota cities and it has received a rash of cases claiming drivers license data abuses across the state. "It is unprecedented as far as the number of claims" of this sort, said LMC's legal counsel, Attorney Tom Grundthoffer, of recent suits.
Last month, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton told Politics In Minnesota that the public liability from the suits "is potentially hundreds of millions of dollars."
Some citizens who have requested their "pings" have found accesses by far-flung governments in parts of the state where they have not travelled. A delineation of the governments accused of illegal "pings" in the Wabasha County case produces a scattershot map, with a cluster of area governments and distant municipalities.
Attorney Erick Kaardal, who is representing the plaintiffs in the Wabasha County case, suggested that the spike of insurance claims and payments might cause a hike in insurance premiums for cities across the state. "In a worst case scenario there could be a lot of insurance dollars paid out," agreed Grundthoffer. "It probably would have some effect on premiums, but not an astronomical one." He suggested comparing it "to an area of the state getting hit by a tornado. You kind of prepare for that sort of thing" as an insurance company.
Has your private data been mined? Here's how to find out
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety has two databases containing residents' license information. Law enforcement officers and other government workers have access to private data through both the Drivers and Vehicle Services' database and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension database. State law requires that these agencies provide individuals with information about instances when their data was accessed, or "pings."
Ask the DVS
1. Email Minnesota Drivers and Vehicles Services at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Ask for the number, dates, and times of queries of your license data and the agencies involved.
3. Specify a timeframe. Ask for queries made within a certain period of time; many requestors have asked for queries dating back to 2003.
4. Include your name, date of birth, and license number.
Ask the BCA
1. Visit the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's (BCA) webpage for data requests: dps.mn.gov/divisions/bca/pages/your-data-rights
2. Fill out the "Data Request by an Individual" form. There is little room to list what data you are seeking; consider attaching a sheet asking for the number, dates, and times of queries of your license data within a specific timeframe and the agencies involved. A checkbox asks if you want to view the data (in St. Paul) or request copies. If you request copies, the BCA can charge for them. Consider requesting a quote of copy prices.
3. A notary public must verify your identity before you sign the form.
4. Mail the notarized request to Jacqueline Cavanaugh, Data Practices, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, 1430 Maryland Avenue East, Saint Paul, MN 55106.