Pawlenty looks to alter privacy law

Jeannine Aquino

The path to government records might soon be littered with obstacles if Gov. Tim Pawlenty has his way.

Pawlenty proposed Thursday revisions to a state law that for years has acted on the presumption that government records should be open to the public.

His proposal, aimed at protecting citizens from identity theft, includes calls to limit the use of Social Security numbers as well as access to driver’s license data and personal phone records.

Brian McClung, Pawlenty’s director of communications, said identity theft is a big problem that needs to be addressed.

“In 2005, more than 3,000 Minnesotans were victims of identity theft,” he said, citing a Federal Trade Commission survey. “The governor thinks we can take some positive steps in doing a better job safeguarding personal information.”

Pawlenty plans to limit the use of Driver and Vehicle Services data to only necessary circumstances, such as public health and safety uses, according to a news release.

His proposal will also make it illegal for unauthorized people to obtain or receive another person’s telephone records. Violations could result in penalties for as long as one year in prison and a $5,000 fine, according to a news release. This consequence also would be extended to those who sell or disclose citizens’ Social Security numbers.

Prentiss Cox, a University professor of clinical law and former manager of the consumer protection division at Attorney General Mike Hatch’s office, said Pawlenty’s initiatives are not new.

“These are ideas that have been kicked around for several years,” he said, explaining that bills which similarly protected consumer privacy had been introduced and rejected at the state House of Representatives before.

What is new, Cox said, is Pawlenty’s focus on reforms to the Minnesota Data Practices Act.

Pawlenty said in a news release the presumption all information held by the government is public unless a specific law designates it as private is “backwards.”

“We need to start with the obligation of government to protect all citizens, and that all personal information that government has about individuals is private,” Pawlenty said in the news release. “It is time for a change.”

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law, does not agree.

“It’s absolutely un-American to start from the presumption that government information should be secret unless the government chooses to make it public,” she said.

Kirtley added it was one of the most “irresponsible” statements she’s heard a government official make.

The Data Practices Act already has provisions addressing the use of Social Security numbers, she said. The law also currently does not provide the public with access to private driver’s license information.

“I believe either the governor does not know how the law works, or he’s misrepresenting it,” Kirtley said.

If the governor is concerned with identity theft, he could pass tougher laws, Kirtley said.

“You don’t address misconduct by closing off access to information,” she said. “My point is to look at laws that exist and enforce it before you talk about amending it.”

Kirtley said there is an inherent problem with the government deciding when records should be made public. It undermines public oversight of the government, she said, as well as makes the government extremely powerful.

“For the chief executive of a state to say that he doesn’t believe in the principle of open government is pretty shocking,” she said.

While she said Pawlenty probably announced his proposal because of the start of the legislative session, Kirtley added it was ironic he announced it just 10 days before Freedom of Information Day. Celebrated on Bill of Rights author James Madison’s birthday, the day increases awareness of the importance of access to government information in a democratic society.

“He wants to take an ax to the open-records law. I hope he isn’t going to get away with it,” Kirtley said.

Cox said while he would need to read the bill in depth to understand the specifics, he said reforms to the Data Practices Act might be worth considering if the government records presumed private are only those which pertain to citizens.

“If all (Pawlenty) talks about is personal financial records or health records, that’s a different matter,” Cox said. “If the proposal is for all government data, I think that’s significantly overreaching. It’s like using a chain saw to cut butter.”

Beth Givens, the director of the nonprofit consumer organization Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said Pawlenty’s proposal joins the “smattering of identity theft bills initiated each year (throughout the nation).”

“In the last three years, surveys have found between 9 or 10 million victims of identity theft,” she said. “Obviously, the governor is addressing a real need.”

However, Givens said if Pawlenty really wanted to prevent identity theft, he should introduce security freeze bills, which would give citizens the ability to freeze their credit report in the event of identity theft.

“Credit freeze is the ultimate identity theft prevention tool for consumers,” she said, adding that 12 states already have such laws in place.

Kevin Goss, a 2005 graduate in psychology, was a victim of identity theft.

He said he received a call from a Wells Fargo operator one morning who said they noticed some unusual activity on his account. When Goss didn’t recognize some of the mostly Internet purchases, including a pizza order from Kentucky, Wells Fargo immediately put a freeze on his account. Goss said he didn’t lose any money, but the process of figuring out how his information could have been stolen was a “big headache.”  

After his experience, Goss said he would be supportive of new legislation to fight identity theft.

“Information and the exchange of it is a new commodity. It needs to be secure,” Goss said. “I wouldn’t say (Pawlenty’s proposal) is a waste of time or money. This is something that should be developed or looked at more.”