Several lawmakers were stunned recently to learn that geolocation data gathered by at least some devices used in Minnesota’s ignition interlock program is unclassified public information.
One of them, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, chair of the House Civil Law and Data Practices Policy committee, said she is pulling together a bill to stop the location tracking of program participants.
The interlock program began as a pilot in 2007 and became a full-blown, legislatively mandated program three years later. It allows convicted drunken drivers to keep their driving privileges if they agree to pay for, install and use an interlock device affixed to a tube, into which the driver blows before starting the car.
If the driver has been drinking, the device detects the alcohol and locks down the car’s ignition so it won’t start. It then reports that violation to one of five private vendors administering the devices. The vendor, in turn, reports the violation to the Public Safety Department to deal with the offender.
Around 10,000 Minnesotans are currently enrolled in the program, according to Dawn Olson, the department’s Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) director, who testified during the year’s first Civil Law committee hearing on Jan. 5
The interlock program came under fire last year when it was discovered that a rulemaking exemption given the Public Safety Department to expedite the program’s statewide rollout might have been used to deploy geolocation tracking software in the devices.
Scott said the program is not supposed to track violators’ whereabouts, only keep cars from moving if their drivers drink. Yet last year, Public Safety officials called on the program’s five authorized vendors to institute real-time reporting by the beginning of 2017, she said.
The matter has drawn the attention of the courts. On Dec. 29, Hennepin County District Court Judge M. Jacqueline Regis granted an injunction preventing the department from enforcing its real-time reporting deadline, pending a review of that provision’s constitutionality.
The injunction was already in place when Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman acknowledged during the Civil Law committee hearing that her department never sought to classify the personal data generated by the ignition interlock devices. That, she admitted, means the data is public under Chapter 13 of the state’s Government Data Practices Act.
However, DVS Director Olson told committee members that her agency has no interest in geo-tracking data. “DVS does not require, use or store GPS data from these devices,” Olson said. “GPS information is not contemplated in the department’s ignition interlock program.”
Scott found that cold comfort. She quoted from Judge Regis’ injunction, which indicated that plaintiff Smart Start MN, one of the program’s vendors, was asked by DVS Field Supervisor James Beauregard to install GPS capability and make sure it was activated.
Committee member Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said she finds the idea of location tracking “very terrifying.”
O’Neill, who said she has often worked with abused women, worries that if such women enroll in the interlock program, they could unwittingly expose themselves to stalking or worse by an abuser making a simple public data request.
“This has got the potential for really, really harming people,” O’Neill said. She urged committee members to act quickly to prevent such outcomes.
Everyone involved in the discussion agreed that the program is good and almost certainly saves lives. The problem, Scott says, is that technology has vaulted far out front of lawmakers’ ability to keep a handle on it — particularly when the agency administering it fails to inform the legislature what it is doing with its high-tech equipment.
Scott said she sees value in real-time reporting of violations because it means the department can intervene against the violator rapidly. But that also is what is so vexing, she said.
“You have to have some sort of Wi-Fi to get the real-time reporting,” Scott said in an interview after the meeting. When a Wi-Fi-enabled device is installed on a car, she said, almost by definition that makes it possible to track its movements. She doubts many enrollees have granted consent to be monitored that way.
Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, a civil law committee member and computer security specialist, said he is concerned that vendors collecting data through the interlock devices might turn around and sell it. Big data is big business, he said.
“What controls are in place that would prevent [vendors] from taking information gleaned from this and sharing it or selling it to third parties?” he asked Dohman.
“I think that would be a question for the vendors,” Dohman said. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
No vendors stepped forward when called by Scott to testify.
Charlie Clippert, president Minnesota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, urged committee members to support Scott’s bill, which could be introduced by the end of this week.
“It’s important that DPS can’t get around data classification by hiring this process out,” Clifford said. “Just because they’re hiring a vendor to administer this program doesn’t insulate the department from the public nature of the data.”
Scott’s bill would prohibit use of geo-tracking devices in the interlock program. It also would amend Public Safety’s rulemaking exemption, requiring the agency to report any significant alterations to the interlock program directly to legislators, rather than making major changes at its own discretion.
She was still gathering authors to sign onto the bill early this week, an aide said Tuesday, adding that it could be introduced as early as Thursday.
For her part, Dohman told lawmakers she would not oppose legislation barring third-party vendors from installing GPS tracking capabilities on their ignition interlock devices.