Driver data fight draws in Minnesota lawmakers

Published 10:43 am Thursday, March 13, 2014

ST. PAUL — Lawmakers inserted themselves Wednesday into a dispute between businesses and the state’s public safety agency over costs and ease of access to millions of driver’s records and vehicle registrations.

Legislation that would reverse an administrative decision to end bulk sales of the data began working its way through the House. Department of Public Safety officials say they’re responding to citizen concern about privacy while a coalition of groups ranging from auto insurers to car dealers to data aggregators contend it will raise consumer prices and slow safety recalls.

The House Civil Law Committee deferred a vote until Friday. But many on the panel indicated they were ready to overrule the department’s move to require records be accessed individually at $5 apiece beginning in May. Users say the bulk availability means they spend less than a dollar for each lookup now.

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Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said her bill simply seeks “a timeout” while those involved in the fight search for a workable compromise, a stance that drew bipartisan backing.

“There are balances,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “You need data to conduct commerce. You can’t just shut down and hope for the best.”

About 15 companies now pay flat rates for daily downloads of the driver and vehicle records. It gives them access to more than 7.7 million vehicle records and 6.5 million license records even if they need only a fraction of them to conduct business.

Pat McCormack, who heads the division that has custody of the records, said a substitute subscription service is being developed that will allow the agency to keep better tabs on where the data is going, but full details aren’t yet known. Bulk buyers were notified of the impending cutoff a few months ago and have been trying to stop it since.

Deputy Public Safety Commissioner Mary Ellison said the change was fueled by public nervousness that personal information is being too widely disseminated.

“Citizens are not giving us this data so industry can resell it and people can be contacted by people selling products,” she said.

The committee heard from an auto dealer group that argued bulk data is needed to ensure swift notification when vehicle recalls are ordered. Ellison said the new system would accommodate the recall concerns.

Insurance industry representatives said they have a heavy volume of searches when setting rates and that the change would add up to $7 million to operating costs, which they argued would be passed to customers in the form of higher premiums.

Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, said the industry concerns were overblown, particularly that premiums would spike.

“I don’t think anyone on this committee is bamboozled by those kinds of statements,” he said.