Friday, March 03, 2006

Government data and privacy

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed removing public access to a lot of government data on individuals, on the grounds of protecting those individuals' privacy.

Pawlenty called for rewriting Minnesota's Data Practices Act to eliminate a presumption that all information governments collect is open for public inspection and replace it with a presumption that most personal information in government files is confidential.

(snip)

His plan also includes:

1. Barring the state from releasing, except in special circumstances, personal information it collects from driver's license applications.

2. Making it illegal for anyone to divulge another person's telephone records.

3. Barring private businesses from using Social Security numbers to identify patients or customers, and requiring companies to restrict employees' access to the Social Security numbers of their co-workers.

This could be a fascinating debate, turning as it does on two issues I hold dear: personal privacy and governmental openness.

Let's narrow the debate down to the important points. The three specifics above aren't very controversial, since they largely reflect current law. The biggest one is the driver's license data. It's already restricted, but the rules are interpreted to mean that media organizations can have access. That allows journalists to quickly double-check details on people in their stories, as well as do more general analyses of all sorts of demographic data. The media have a responsibility to use that access carefully -- a responsibility that could be made statutory. But completely eliminating media access to the database would be a mistake.

Rewriting the Data Practices Act is the biggie, one that could have far-reaching implications, and isn't something to be done lightly.

It can already be difficult to get public information from the government; a 2000 survey by a group of Minnesota journalists found that many governmental bodies refused to release information that was clearly public domain:
57% of county jails refused access to the names of prisoners. Itasca County charged $5 per inmate for the information -- which is supposed to be free except for a nominal copying charge.

28% of school districts refused to reveal the superintendent's salary.

2% of City Hall officials refused to allow access to the minutes of council meetings.

The survey demonstrated that despite a law that says otherwise, many public employees are reluctant to share indisputably public data with citizens. A new, more restrictive law would just provide a whole raft of new reasons to deny access to legitimately public data.

And that's *if* the law includes a very careful definition of what is public and what isn't. A vaguely written law would just compound the problem.

Why should we care? Two reasons. One, open access to government information is one of the most important ways we have to keep tabs on our government. If we allow it to operate in secrecy, oversight becomes nearly impossible.

Second, much useful research -- on health, on crime, on population growth, on infrastructure -- relies on access to government data. It may be possible to allow access to aggregate but not individual data, but in some cases even that would not be enough. Sometimes you have to know the individual data in order to make sense of the aggregate results.

I applaud the governor's concern for privacy. I just think his sledgehammer approach is a very careless one that practically guarantees massive unintended consequences. Rather than presume all data is private, a better approach would be to carve out narrow, specific exceptions for certain data -- much as driver's licenses are handled now.

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