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Privacy, policing advocates set to square off

Technology doesn’t stop advancing — and Minnesota lawmakers seeking to guide law-enforcement use of new devices and shield citizens from government data-collection overreach aren’t resting either during the interim between legislative sessions.

Legislators tackled license plate readers earlier this year, and advocates on all sides are now preparing for battle or compromise on a series of related issues in 2016.

The Legislative Commission on Data Practices meets Tuesday for the second time this year, with a special joint House-Senate committee meeting on police body cameras set for December.

Body cams will top the marquee next session among issues having both data privacy and public safety implications, which also include the federal “Real ID” requirement and law enforcement’s use of drones.

The unusual left-right politics around these issues may or may not lead to results along the lines of the license plate reader law that passed last session, several key lawmakers said. Missing from the mix will be privacy advocate Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, whose resignation takes effect at the end of October.

Several police departments have already begun outfitting officers with body cameras that document their activities, and state officials have ruled the resulting videos are public data. All eyes are on the Legislature to reconcile concerns that the public should have access to the videos with concerns that some videos will invade the privacy of people who appear in them.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, a retired peace officer who chairs the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention, predicted a “brouhaha” on body cams: “I think the advocates for privacy felt like they got steamrolled [on license plate readers]. Now they want a bigger fight than ever on body cams.”

An intractable fight could hang things up. “I am not going to pass a body cam bill just to have a bill,” said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “If it gets crazy I’m not going to give it a hearing.”

Body cams will be the subject of a joint meeting in December of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Another looming issue is a year-end deadline for state-issued ID cards to incorporate digital information to meet federal “Real ID” standards.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who chairs the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, said she sees Minnesota getting “some sort of extension” from the federal government — along the lines of the one-year extension New York State announced last week. But in the long run, she said, Minnesota will have to comply with the federal government, which concerns her.

“They have told us it’s not a national ID,” Scott said. “What all information is contained on the bar code?”

Latz said he hopes “it doesn’t get hung up. It’s really nothing scary. Real ID will pass.”

Lawmakers on both sides of privacy-public safety debates are looking to rein in police use of drones this session. Police putting drones in the sky without guidance from state law may be one issue that concerns both advocates of both camps.

“I have some real worries” about law-enforcement use of drones, Latz said. “Even though I don’t approve of shooting one out of the sky, I can see the frustration.”

Legislators managed to pass a law last session regulating police use of mobile license plate readers (LPR), compromising on 60 days as the length of time law enforcement agencies can retain the data.

Scott said she was “disappointed but the Senate wasn’t going to settle for zero days” of data retention, as she and other privacy advocates had sought.

Scott said she doesn’t see the LPR law as a model for resolving other privacy-policing issues.

“Each individual issue is going to stand on its own,” she said.

One venue for hashing out issues is the Legislative Commission on Data Practices, now meeting monthly after holding its first meeting of the year in September. For the first time, the commission has a budget after the Legislature approved funding this year.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, the panel’s chair, said the commission would spend its $70,000 for the 2016-17 biennium on staff time for specialized research. “Wading through all these issues is a little technical,” she said. “It’s a pretty serious subject.”

Kent said the committee’s previous chair, former Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, “did a great job last year. She let people come [to speak] and provided a forum.”

Kent described herself as “very sensitive to the issue of citizen privacy” but also to the public interest in effective law enforcement and prosecution. “I’m not a point on any spectrum,” she said. She said she sees data practices as an area where there is “no right or wrong — so many shades of gray.”

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is pushing for the commission to produce a “best practices primer” to the state’s data-practices law. The goal is that legislators and others drafting bills touching on privacy or transparency issues do so with the state law in mind.

When they don’t, he said, it “really bogs down” work in committees such as Latz’s that must then try to craft a fix, taking “all kinds of time — an unbelievable pain.”

Latz, who rejected the commission’s recommendations on LPRs earlier this year, was dismissive of the committee’s role: “They exist.” The commission’s role and weight given to its recommendations in the coming session “may depend on the issue,” he said.

Privacy advocates are trumpeting a summertime informal gauge of public opinion as an indication that Minnesotans are on their side.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents to the annual House Public Information Services poll at the Minnesota State Fair said yes to this question: “Should the state constitution be amended to protect electronic communications and data, such as email or text messages, from unreasonable government searches and seizure?”

But Petersen’s bill to that effect, co-sponsored by Dibble, died in Latz’s committee. Scott carried the bill in the House, where it advanced through several committees, including hers.

Dibble said legislators should take the poll’s result to heart. “[Privacy advocates] aren’t screwing around anymore. Public opinion is not with [amendment opponents] — it’s off the charts. We’d be foolish if we don’t take [action].”

If the Legislature takes up his constitutional amendment bill next year, the retiring Petersen won’t be there to push it.

Latz said he would miss Petersen’s input from a Libertarian-leaning perspective. “He paid attention and was a valuable voice in committee.” Recalling the privacy advocate offering amendment after amendment, however, Latz allowed that Petersen’s absence “should speed things up.”

Dibble said Petersen “brought a lot of energy and a lot of thoughtfulness to the whole subject.” With his departure, “it’s not automatic that [others in the Legislature have the same] talent, interest, passion.”

But Scott, a Petersen ally, said privacy advocates would carry on without him. “Other people have a high interest in these issues,” she said.



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