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Data privacy snooping claims mount against MN cops, government employees

By   /   October 10, 2013  /   News  /   15 Comments

By Tom Steward/Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

WABASHA — It may not rise to the level of the NSA surveillance scandal, but each week more cases alleging privacy breaches by police and government employees snooping into Minnesotans’ personal driver license data without cause come to light and go to court.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety database contains personal information such as addresses, Social Security numbers and health conditions, according to court documents.  The federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act  protects individuals from unwarranted “lookups” or “pings” of their records and levies a penalty that dwarfs any speeding ticket — $2,500 per violation.

Yet one newly minted case filed by 18 Wabasha County conservative activists — a state representative and two sitting county commissioners among them — ups the ante by raising accusations of prying into driver license data for political purposes.

“You line up dates and start to look at what was I doing around those different times and why are these particular pings concentrated here and it’s pretty clear,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, whose records were accessed 94 times.  “There’s definitely activity that coincides with political activity.  I had a good number of pings that happened on and before and right after announcing for office in two different general elections and one special election.”

OUT OF CONTROL? Lawyer Erick Kaardal files a lawsuit on behalf of citizen group that alleges a pattern of political prying into their personal data.

The onslaught of legal claims follows a high-profile $1 million-plus settlement for a former police officer who documented hundreds of breaches of her personal data across multiple jurisdictions. A Twin Cities news anchor and her journalist husband recently filed a lawsuit in federal court against several local governments in connection with more than 1,400 allegedly illegal inquiries.

Hundreds of citizens, meanwhile, continue to press the state for audits of their records, driving concerns about the mounting financial impact on taxpayers.

“There’s numerous claim files where people have written us saying ‘I’ve been looked up, pay me money’ without any kind of question about whether it’s legitimate or not,” said Thomas Grundhoefer, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities.  “We have hundreds of those and at last count about 200 of our members have had some kind of claim or lawsuit brought against them.”

Driver license record audits obtained by request from the state for the Wabasha County case detail the exact time, date and agency behind a combined 600 alleged infractions over a decade, a potential $2 million liability.

“I’m 70 years old, I live a pretty mundane life,” said David Harms, a Wabasha County commissioner and retired policeman whose records were checked out 63 times. “I don’t drink, I don’t go out and spend late nights out on the roads, and there’s no reason why my information should have been accessed.”

The state withholds the names of individuals responsible for the lookups on the grounds of confidentiality.  But the citizens group’s lawsuit claims the personnel include supervisors, officers, sheriffs, deputies, police chiefs, staff, investigators, employees or agents of 26 counties, 36 cities, 3 police departments and several state agencies, including the Minnesota Attorney General, Minnesota State Patrol and Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The case, however,  primarily focuses on Wabasha County law enforcement and other officials involved in a long-running dispute with the citizens group over the role and size of local government.  It’s not clear why other jurisdictions apparently were accessing the citizens group records.

“Wabasha County law enforcement personnel and other public employees manipulated the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s system of maintaining personal, private information of Minnesota citizens to obtain federally protected confidential information of the members of the citizen group,” the group’s lawsuit states.  “… The Wabasha County Defendants were ‘pinging’ the DPPA-protected records of (g)roup members to see if the information could be used criminally or politically against the (g)roup members.”

The citizen group’s attorney continues to pursue the release of the names of the individuals behind the snooping.

“What are we going to do with these police officers?” said Erick Kaardal, attorney for the citizens group. “In other agencies of the government, it’s a one strike and you’re out policy with respect to violating private, confidential data.”

The outcome will hinge partly on legal issues that could be decided in several other pending cases, including how to apply the four-year statute of limitations in such cases and whether an individual must show illegally accessed data was acted on in order to pursue a claim for damages.

Wabasha County authorities referred Watchdog Minnesota Bureau to an attorney defending the case on behalf of 23 counties.

“We anticipate putting in our response denying any liability,” said Jessica Schwie, a lawyer with the Twin Cities law firm of Jardine, Logan and O’Brien. “…We anticipate having the same defenses available to us to seek dismissal of all claims, and we’ll bring those types of motions when we can based upon the law that’s issued and available at the time.”

One legal question recently was settled when a judge ruled that state agencies cannot be held liable for the actions of government employees that snoop on driver record data.

“Recent court rulings have dismissed state agencies from these cases and made it clear that the departments are not liable for a user’s unauthorized access of driver and vehicle data,” said Bruce Gordon, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s director of communications.  “The Department of Public Safety remains committed to strengthening user training and oversight of the system; however, oversight and training are no substitute for an individual honoring his or her professional and ethical obligation under the law.”

Contact Tom Steward at [email protected]




Tom formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • olmert2

    I used to vacation in MN and seriously thought about moving to a nice cabin on a lake there for retirement. Then I started to realize that the state that elects Jesse Ventura, Al Franken might not be for me. Then I saw the tax structure and knew I should start looking elsewhere. I guess this one confirms that MN might not even be a state to vacation in anymore

  • Bureaucraps out of control. Randy, the Lazy Comic… and I Opprove this comment.

  • OLJingoist

    So let me try and understand this.
    The state agencies cannot be held responsible for allowing illegal access to records that were entrusted to them ?
    I can’t even begin to understand ……. OH democrats …. forget it

  • klsparrow

    Anyone want to bet if it was democrat are republican people who were targeted? Democrats say we have a fair elections in this country, really. Move on people no problem here. This is just the tip of the iceberg. You can bet this goes on all across the country to influence the out come of elections.

  • J-Man

    There has to be responsibility. I am 100% in favor of the person who accessed the information being responsible. They should get the fine and lose their job. End of story.

  • J-Man

    Logging in should require a long password and it should be a super secret. That way it would be easy to identify offenders. You should also have to state the purpose for accessing personal information.

  • TheDirtmover

    WOW!!! A Law written by LIBS ,,,FOR Libs….
    ” We can’t be held respectable, and the ones that are responsible are protected
    by privacy laws… You can go pound sand, and we can snoop till our hearts content”.
    This is “O” and Co.’s wet dream of a law.

  • Police learn about you from basic Government database queries. And a whole heckuva lot more with the non-basic queries connected to federal and international databases.

    Your name and aliases; your Social Security number; where you live; when you were born; the color of your skin and eyes; any scars, tattoos, or identifying marks; your height, vision, and gender; what kind of car you drive, whether it’s a stolen vehicle, and your license and plate numbers; your traffic violation history; your local, state, and federal criminal history, your fingerprints; and your Driver’s License photo are part of the basic query.

    Local police gather this information from five main databases. A search of records from the state registration agency Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) yields information on you, your car, and to whom and where it’s specifically registered. There’s archive of driver’s license records, kept in some states by the DMV and in other states by a separate licensing agency, which has facts on where you live, your driving record, and a digital copy of your license photo. Outstanding arrest warrants will show up in a third database, and a person’s criminal history can be found in either the local police records or the federally operated National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which culls from local, state, and federal files in all 50 States and U.S. Territories. Most larger police agencies also subscribe to research tools that are available to the general public, like LexisNexis and credit reporting services. However, Police access to these “public” databases grants them whole access to everyone’s credit reports, credit scores, marriages, divorce, births, deaths, adoptions, property transactions, property ownership, and a whole lot more even though they’re not the actual person that’s being queried.

    Access to the databases works a little differently in every agency. In general, police have unrestricted access to the DMV, driver’s license, and warrant databases, as well as local police records. In most departments these days, the information can be obtained via Windows-based graphical user interfaces, while some other offices still behind the curve and/or strapped for cash still use DOS-like text interfaces. Either way, it works a lot like searching for a book at the library: Officers click a shortcut on their computer desktop to open a window that will let them search by name, license number, date of birth, or Social Security number, and return all matching records in one fell swoop.

    Looking up a person’s federal and state criminal history can be a little more complicated, though this also varies from agency to agency. In most larger and ‘modern’ departments, officers can query the NCIC database directly from their office computers or the mobile data computer in their squad car; but in a few, officers must submit a formal request to their records department and sign a statement saying it’s part of an ongoing investigation—and that the record will be destroyed when the investigation is over. But that is increasingly rare these days given that instant access to all information on all people makes filing requests and waiting for permission inefficient and too time consuming when arrests and ‘protecting the public’ are time sensitive and the ability to just simply access all the information you need takes about 60 seconds.

  • pdzieweczynski

    Good stay away! You might have hit the nail 100% with Al F., but Jesse is for the people, not the corparations or special interests. Inaddition, if you don’t see that, your just another sheep getting hoodwinked by the elephants and donkeys.

  • Scott Clark

    What do you expect, Minnesota is one of the biggest communistic states in the union. The entire state should be annexed back into Canada. Yes, I used to live there and I know full well the state sucks it hard.

  • Wait until the Feds get tour medical records that are tied to your tax returns & bank accounts. What could possibly go wrong with the government in charge?

  • olmert2

    So you are good that Ventura has stated that he will never stand for the national anthem again, that he is a 9/11 truther, that he wants to go after Chris Kyles widow, that he refers to Castro as his friend, ………….

  • MnNiceGuy

    Oh whatever. Considering most people in law enforcement are conservative, republicans were in on it too. Get real.

  • MnNiceGuy

    Most law enforcement is conservative! Obviously you patriot freedom fighter republic were in on it too! Don’t be disingenuous

  • MnNiceGuy

    Obviously republicans were in on it too! How many dem cops do you know? Get real