Editorial: More sunlight, rather than lessPublished 9:58am Friday, March 21, 2014
From drones to cellphone surveillance, new technology is creating new threats to both personal privacy and the public’s right to know.
Developments happen fast, said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican from Lakeville.
But when it comes to legislators’ policy-making efforts on “data practices” — as Minnesota’s body of laws relating to government information is known — “we’re basically being run over by snails,” she told us.
How lawmakers keep up with a rapidly changing data world is an appropriate topic for Sunshine Week, March 16-22, devoted to celebrating the bright light of government transparency.
It’s public policy that should matter to every one of us.
“By just checking a box” when they go to the doctor and indicate agreement with federal privacy standards (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), “they are, in fact, giving up some of their rights to control their information,” said Holberg, an expert on data practices who has announced that after eight terms, the 2014 legislative session will be her last.
Part of the “current reality of the legislative process is that there’s only one strong champion for issues of data privacy, transparency and government accountability, and that’s Mary Liz Holberg,” said Don Gemberling, who long oversaw freedom-of-information and privacy issues from his post in the state’s Department of Administration. He now is a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.
There are more and more bills dealing with data practices, openness and closing records, he said, bills that pick at current standards bit by bit. “Legislators recognize the complexity of the issues.”
A remedy? Holberg proposes formation of a 10-member Legislative Commission on Data Practices — with five members each from the Senate and House — who would develop expertise and make recommendations to their colleagues.
“Her hope is to create a new generation of people who know and care passionately about these kinds of issues,” said Gemberling. He considers the bill “one of most important the Legislature is considering” this session.
“Technology surrounds us. It watches us,” he said. Having a commission that devotes time to the issue will produce a “much more desirable result for the public.”
Risks? “There’s no way to tell how a group of 10 people might function,” Gemberling admits. But there’s also concern about consistency in the lawmaking process. “If there’s nobody watching it closely, you don’t know what creeps in along the way,” he said, citing bills to cut off access to law-enforcement mug shots, which have been made public for years, as a reaction to opportunitistic websites that have sprung up.
Also on advocates’ minds this session:
• Unintended consequences. We’ve hailed Gov. Mark Dayton’s call to an Unsession devoted to streamlining state government. As that happens, the drive to increase efficiency and save staff time often means getting rid of reports, says Rich Neumeister, a fixture at the Capitol and a longtime activist on data issues.
“Reports are a way the public can go and find out what’s up with a particular agency,” he said. “Do thousands read them? No. But a number of people do,” and lawmakers and others turn to them when questions arise.
• Access. State government is increasingly doing away with printed documents, moving information online. Many residents don’t have computer access, and if they do, service is inconsistent across the state, particularly in greater Minnesota, Neumeister said.
In addition to the lawmakers and activists are state employees dedicated to “getting it right,” the staff of the state’s Information Policy Analysis Division, which provides data practices assistance to citizens, journalists and public officials. Their work to make sure public information indeed is public is appreciated.
When it comes to data-practices policy, “you have to weigh the private right to privacy vs. a public interest,” Holberg says. “Many times there is no clear-cut solution — but rather a balancing of interests.”
The balance in some instances can be delicate, but from our angle of view, the scale consistently tips toward more access to more information more freely. Public access to information that allows us to judge the performance of public officials spending public money is and always will be crucial.
— St. Paul Pioneer Press, March 19