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Minnesota Senate: Olson measure would make DNR license data private

A measure by Sen. Mary Olson to classify state hunting and fishing license data as private is gaining attention from free press advocates.

Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who chairs the omnibus data practices bill conference committee, included the provision in the Senate bill.

Mark Anfinson, attorney counsel for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, says such data should be public and open government lobbyists are trying to find a compromise Olson can accept.

The state Department of Natural Resources maintains a huge database of information about the various licenses and permits issued by the agency, involving hunting, fishing, trail use, recreational vehicles and other activities, Anfinson said. The database has been off limits for the past three years because the DNR has been using motor vehicle and driver's license data, thus skirting federal restrictions on public access.

"But next year the DNR will discontinue that use, and so whether public access is restored will depend on what the Legislature decides this session," Anfinson informed MNA members. "The Senate has taken the position that all of the DNR licensing and permit data should be classified as private, ignoring decades of public access to this information, which produced many benefits and virtually no documented problems."

The House data practices bill, which classifies those records as public, had yet to be passed by the full House as of Thursday night. When it does, it will be reconciled with the Senate version in Olson's conference committee.

"I view this more like private data," Olson said Thursday in a phone interview. "This is personal data that people have to give in order to be able to go fishing, or in order to go hunting, so it's not as though they have a choice. They have to provide this information if they want to be able to do the kinds of things that are within the jurisdiction of the DNR."

Most people don't even realize that the DNR could then turn around and make that information available to other people with lists. "Whether it's sold or it's given freely, I think most people would still rather have the privacy of that data respected."

People who buy a hunting license don't want to end up on a solicitation list, whether it be the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club, she said.

Media who need that data to determine trends or to keep the transparency with DNR activities can get that data elsewhere, Olson maintains.

"We have other things where people can look for trends within the medical community where it's non-identifiable data, where they can get certain statistics but not data that's actually identifiable," Olson said. "But that's not what they want. They want the information to be identifiable."

In an interview with Politics in Minnesota, data privacy activist Rich Neumeister said Olson's bill "makes all DNR records that relate to licenses -- boats, ATVs, hunting and fishing licenses -- non-public. For the last three years, they've been non-public because of some connection between DNR and the Department of Public Safety. Driver's licenses are protected by federal law. If someone plows into your yard in their car and you see the license plate and want to get their information, you can't even get that. The bottom line is that you've got to hire a private dick to get that information for you."

The accident scenario has been brought up in committee, Olson said, "there are other avenues to get the information without going through this avenue.

"I just think the newspapers are understandably always going to be in favor of their access to all information," she said. "They're going to be an advocate for that position, and as a former journalism major, I am normally with them, but I'm not going to always be with them because I still think there has to be some balance. There needs to be some respect for privacy considerations in situations ..."

Most people would rather have the privacy of their data respected, Olson said.