Political Chatter: Privacy Matters To Be In The Open

Every Minnesota legislative session seems to produce one issue no one saw coming, at least to the scale it reaches.

Perhaps that issue this year will be privacy.

When Minnesotans hear comments like from Rep. Peggy Scott, it could attract attention.

“In today’s schools, the highly sensitive and personal information … now is being uploaded up on third-party servers,” the Andover Republican said when she and Democrats joined together Wednesday in announcing a series of bills designed to protect Minnesotans’ privacy.

Most parents likely do not know that iPads, laptop computers and other devices schools provide students may come via a contract that allows businesses that provide the electronics the right to gather data on the students. It goes to private computer servers in the cloud, where the company may use it — or sell it for others to use — to target the kids with advertising.

Privacy advocates do not know how many schools’ contracts allow businesses to use student information, but Scott said her objective is to conduct a preemptive strike.

Besides contact information, Scott said, electronic devices contain information such as grades, Social Security numbers, disability status, disciplinary actions and financial information.

Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said it is not just businesses that are looking at student information. Schools are, too.

The lawmaker said one of the half-dozen bills being proposed also bans schools from looking at private data.

“We want to make sure our students are protected from that,” he said.

Citizen-lobbyist Rich Neumeister, who has worked on privacy and open-government issues for decades, wrote about the issue on his Open Secrets blog two years ago, after St. Paul schools signed a contract to provide iPads: “Would there be a parent anywhere who would support the school district’s actions to abrogate their families and children’s privacy rights? Does the iPad initiative violate students-family privacy and liberty rights?  Does the school district have the right to install devices in the iPads that allow monitoring and surveillance of where students go and what they do? What are the choices that parents and students have?”

Many questions Neumeister raised in 2014 remain unanswered, the privacy advocates pushing legislation indicated.

Other privacy issues that could arise include how long police can keep body camera video, and who can see it, and whether drones should be regulated to protect privacy.

The wild card on privacy and most other issues this year will be how much legislators can do in a short session. They go into session March 8 and the Constitution requires them to wrap up by May 23. It is much shorter than usual, in a large part because pretty much all of the Capitol is closed due to renovation.

Parking garage woes

A $10.9 million parking garage repair request is getting attention.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s public works funding bill includes fixing the five-floor Centennial ramp after the state discovered during routine maintenance last year that some cables supporting the facility had broken.

“Although the ramp is currently safe, failure to make these repairs will render the parking ramp unsafe over time and could result in catastrophic failure,” the state Administration Department said in its request for funding.

The ramp has 1,489 parking spaces, but many now are not available as temporary braces hold up ceilings.

‘Happy birthday, new voter’

Minnesotans turning voting age may not get many printed birthday cards in this electronic age, but they can expect something in the mail from Secretary of State Steve Simon.

Simon announced he will send 100,000 letters in the next nine months to Minnesotans who recently turned 18, encouraging them to register to vote.

“I strongly believe we should be doing everything we can to get good habits started early with young Minnesotans, and this outreach effort is an important step in that direction,” Simon said. “This will not only help encourage pre-election registration and decrease wait times on Election Day, but by contacting voters on an ongoing basis, we can help ease the volume of voter registration applications received by counties in the last few weeks leading up to the election.”

Rural battle coming

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen did not want to talk about it, but he signaled that rural Minnesota again will be a battleground for control of the state House.

The Minneapolis Democrat and rural Democrats lined up at a news conference to lay out their plans for greater Minnesota, plans that were mostly like what they wanted a year ago.

Thissen said they were talking “not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” diverting attention away from the fall election and to the March 8 opening of the 2016 state Legislature.

Thissen used lines often heard before elections, such as: “Republicans talk a lot about tax cuts, they talk a lot about trickle-down economics,” policies, which he said only help big corporations.

Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, started with a comment that likely will be heard on the campaign trail: “A strong rural Minnesota means a strong Minnesota.”

Republican wins in several rural districts gave them control of the House last year, and rural Minnesota again appears to be a main focus.