MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — From the comforts of their cars and with the ease of their fingertips, police officers can pull up the facts and photos of anyone with a driver’s license. Sophisticated computer terminals in squad cars give them instant access to both criminal and driver data bases.
“Law enforcement needs this information to do their jobs,” said Department of Public Safety (DPS) spokesman, Andy Skoogman.
However, a Twin Cities woman is outraged that her license photo was accessed 425 times by more than 100 law enforcement personnel over a four-year period. In August, she filed a complaint with the department, setting off an internal inquiry. If her data was not being used for a legitimate law enforcement action, it constitutes a blatant abuse of the state’s data privacy laws.
“We don’t know why this person’s data is being accessed,” said Skoogman. “We’re asking law enforcement agencies to look into this to determine whether or not it was appropriate.”
On Aug. 30, 2011, the Department of Public Safety sent letters to 18 police and sheriff’s departments in Minnesota, including the FBI. The letter explained the possible misuse of the woman’s data and identified those individuals suspected of accessing the photograph. It concludes by asking for the departments to inform DPS of their findings.
“I think it will be a wake-up call,” said former Brooklyn Park Police Captain, Greg Roehl.
Before he retired from the force, Roehl worked with police to educate them about the seriousness of the state’s data practices law. Roehl said that driver’s license photographs that once took written requests and weeks to get, now transmit in mere seconds. The former captain explains that if it’s not needed for a traffic stop or investigation, it’s private and off limits.
“People forget that absolutely everything you do on a computer is traceable and retrievable and you can’t erase it,” Roehl said.
Call it computer fingerprints if you will. But without a lawful reason to look, a simple curiosity could land the officers in their own legal troubles.
“People are tracking and people are really concerned about their data and how it’s handled by the government,” Roehl added.