Minnesota Legislation Seeks To Keep Electronic Data Private

Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil LIberties Union Minnesota chapter supports bills to strengthen Minnesotans' privacy on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil LIberties Union Minnesota chapter supports bills to strengthen Minnesotans’ privacy on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Students’ iPads and other technology devices may provide personal data that companies can use to target advertising at the youth.

Minnesotans’ emails more than 6 months old may be obtained by law enforcement officers without seeking search warrants from judges.

Schools and employers sometimes force students and employees to give them access to social media accounts.

Legislation to outlaw those and other technology-related issues are to be introduced in the Minnesota Legislature this spring, a diverse group of lawmakers and other privacy advocates announced Wednesday.

Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota chapter said that Minnesotans would not accept someone walking into their homes and looking through financial documents, diaries, photographs and the like, so that should not be allowed on today’s electronic devices.

“It is the wild west right now for data collection,” Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said.

Government access to personal electronic devices and social media accounts “is kind of big brotherish,” Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said. “This is a preemptive strike,” she said of the half-dozen bills that were announced Wednesday.

The privacy advocates had few examples of what is happening on the issue in Minnesota, but could produce some. Lesch said more examples will surface when legislative committees meet on the issues.

Lesch told of a deputy sheriff and assistant principal who demanded that a student give them her social media username and password. Minnesota media have reported cases in which employers, or potential employers, sought the same information from workers or would-be employees.

Such practices would be banned under one of the bills.

Matt Ehling, a privacy advocate, said schools, including in St. Paul, “routinely” cut deals with businesses such as Apple to provide iPads and other devices for students. Contracts can include permission for the company to collect data on students, he said, with the intention of targeting them with advertisements, Lesch said.

The businesses “gather large amounts of personal data,” Ehling said.

“It’s a gold mine,” Lesch added.

Discounts schools may get for allowing the data collection could disappear if the bill passes to end the practice, Lesch said.

Privacy advocates could not come up with examples of police looking at emails more than 6 months old, but Lesch said “it absolutely happens.” He recently left his long-time job as a St. Paul prosecutor.

A bill Minnesota lawmakers will consider is crafted after a new California law that requires a court-issued order to look at emails. In California, technology companies such as Google and law enforcement agencies supported the bill.

Overall, the six bills — similar to ones being considered in more than a dozen other states — require government officials and businesses to treat electronic data like paper records.

Minnesotans do not want government to “know everything about you at will,” Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Ian Kantonen of Minnesota Public Interest Research Group said data such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and health records that now resides of mobile telephones and other electronic devices a few years ago would have been locked away in a filing cabinet.

“These bills will finally bring our laws up to date with technology,” Samuelson said.