Archived Story

Tighter grip on driver data sets off Minnesota feud

Published 9:31am Friday, February 7, 2014

ST. PAUL — Approaching access policy changes for Minnesota driver’s licenses and vehicle registration data have the auto insurance industry warning of higher rates and car dealers saying safety recalls could be hampered.

In the name of enhanced data security, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety plans to end subscription-based bulk sales of the records in March and require specific queries at $5 per lookup for potentially millions of searches annually. Companies that amass the records for databases and those that rely heavily on the information are lobbying Gov. Mark Dayton to halt the policy switch and haven’t ruled out going to court if he doesn’t.

The dispute, which has played out mostly in private until this week, is wrapped in a bigger debate over how to prevent misuse of government records and protect privacy for licensed drivers and vehicle owners.

“I think people would have to have their head in the sand to not realize that data security is a huge issue for the citizens of our state and all around the country,” the agency’s deputy commissioner, Mary Ellison, said in an interview Thursday.

“The knee-jerk reaction is that the sky is falling,” she added. “Everyone who gets this data now feels like they’re getting it for a legitimate use and their use is safe. But unless we can really have the ability to audit and make sure the data isn’t being abused, we have the obligation to take the steps we are taking.”

She said officials have long been concerned about supplying vendors with entire state databases when they only need select details. Discussions over a new approach began more than a year ago, but many vendors learned of the particulars in letters sent late last year.

Bulk buyers were originally advised the new policy would start this month, but it was postponed until March 10. In the meantime, groups with a big stake in the switch approached senior aides to Dayton last week about intervening. Spokesman Matt Swenson said Dayton hasn’t decided on any action after top staff listened to stakeholder concerns.

Among the organizations raising objections is the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, which represents auto and life insurance companies.

Mark Kulda, the federation’s vice president of public affairs, said agents who now pay less than $1 per query to companies that get information on driver licensure, traffic infractions and car ownership in bulk form every day regard the markup as unfair. Kulda said people shopping for insurance often lead to multiple lookups because each company needs to do its own. So if someone seeks quotes from five companies, the fees would total $25.

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