Driver's license data privacy breach incites outrage, but also indifference

Jim Nobles
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles speaks at a Capitol hearing on a report about law enforcement's use of state databases, including driver's license data, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 at the State Office Building.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

When she learned that a Department of Natural Resources employee who inappropriately looked at her driver's license data was her neighbor four doors down the street, Diana Knutson was on edge.

"I feel so violated," said Knutson, of Woodbury. "This is total just pure invasion of your privacy — no different from someone breaking into my home."

Now, a month after the DNR released details of an investigation concluding John Hunt had accessed thousands of driver's records for no work-related reason, many of the people he looked up, including Knutson, are still left wondering why.

Knutson, one of 5,000 mostly women who received letters from the DNR about the incident, is among dozens who are suing Hunt and state officials for violating their privacy. A federal law says victims in these types of cases are eligible for at least $2,500 in damages.

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"It's scary," said Mary Beach, of Cottage Grove, who also planned to join one of the lawsuits. "The more I think about it and the more I'm learning about it, the more upsetting it is."

Some state lawmakers have also expressed outrage over the incident, especially after the state Legislative Auditor suggested on Wednesday that inappropriate use of the data could be widespread. But with data about people so easily accessed online, some Minnesotans have accepted the fact that people are able to search for them.

MPR News asked members of its Public Insight Network how they would react if they knew their driver's license information had been accessed inappropriately. About two-thirds of the four dozen people who responded said they would feel concerned, or even violated. But the other third said their opinion would depend on how the information was used.

More reaction from MPR's Public Insight Network
Auditor: Driver's license database oversight is lax
Charges filed in DNR data breach
Lawsuit filed against DNR employee over data breach

"My data is out there in many different places, and I can't be too protective of it — it's almost impossible it seems to completely safeguard it," said Mark Donohue, of Maple Grove. "Unless there's an imminent concern that the data is going to be used against me, then I don't get overly concerned."

"People are going to be innately curious," said Zhenya Stone, of Brooklyn Park. "I don't care if someone looks up my information; it's what they do with it that matters."

Stone said it would be "silly" to give Hunt jail time and make him pay thousands of dollars just for looking at data. Even some of the people now suing him for violating their privacy have publicly accessible Facebook pages containing photos and other personal information.

But some said it's a different story when it's a government employee inappropriately accessing private data that the government is keeping on people.

"I am required to give the state information and I give it in good faith. The state is responsible for the handling and protection of my information and is liable," said Blaine McCutchan, of Golden Valley.

Hunt hasn't spoken publicly about the allegations against him, and didn't respond to interview requests. Besides the lawsuits, he's also facing criminal charges. Hunt's attorney, Fred Bruno, declined to comment on the criminal charges other than to emphasize that his client wasn't using the information for identity theft or other financial gain. He said Hunt will plead not guilty at a hearing next month.

Bruno questioned whether people should be compensated in the case, given how many people have access to the data. More than 11,000 law enforcement employees used the database last year, and school districts, car dealers, towing companies and media organizations are among the entities that have access to the data.

"I think what's motivating all the brouhaha is money," he said. "They're trying to justify it with some sort of emotional distress, but driver's license information is nothing more than what we give to people every day on the street that we know nothing about."

There are strict rules about how driver's license data — including photos, birth dates, addresses and physical descriptions — can be used, but the Legislative Auditor found that the state isn't adequately monitoring whether law enforcement employees who have access to the data are following the law.

"We have a real problem. We have to face it, and we have to address it, because this is really eroding people's confidence in the ability and willingness of state government to protect private data," Legislative Auditor James Nobles told lawmakers. "We are asking citizens of this state to turn over their private data — requiring them to turn it over — every day."