A former female police officer, suspecting randy colleagues were abusing Minnesota’s driver’s license database to look her up, discovered that 104 officers in 18 different agencies across the state had accessed her driver’s license record 425 times, using the state database as their personal Facebook service.
An audit found that officers in the Dakota County Sheriff’s office, Bloomington Police, and state troopers, were among those who illegally accessed the file of Anne Marie Rasmusson over the course of nearly four years. There were 24 police officers in Minneapolis who accessed her record 133 times, and 42 officers in St. Paul who looked her up 175 times. A female officer in St. Paul looked up Rasmusson’s record 30 times over the course of two years.
The cops could be fired if an internal investigation finds that they violated a federal privacy law, in what could be one of the largest private data breaches by law enforcement in history, according to the Minneapolis independent paper City Pages, which broke the story.
“There is nothing that I would say about this driver’s license photo or any of my previous ones that in any way would deserve the attention that they’ve gotten,” Rasmusson told the paper. “I can’t begin to understand what people were thinking.”
Rasmusson, who is planning to file a lawsuit, maintains that the activity is symptomatic of a larger problem involving data abuses by police and fears retribution from officers for bringing the problem to light. Rasmusson’s complaint, to be filed in federal court in Minnesota in a few weeks, alleges that the officers violated, among other things, the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act, which Congress passed in 1994 after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a stalker who obtained her home address through her driver’s license record.
The Act prohibits states from disclosing personal information that drivers submit to obtain a driver’s license, including their photograph, Social Security number, name, address, phone number, and medical or disability information.
Rasmusson, a former police officer with the St. Paul Police Department, who was known by colleagues as “Bubbles” because of her effusive personality, took a medical retirement several years ago after suffering a work-related injury.
She first became aware that other officers were using the database to look her up when a former police academy colleague mentioned to her in 2009 that he and his partner had used their squad car computer to view her driver’s license photo. The guy told her he thought she looked great. Rasmusson had once been overweight, but had undergone a dramatic makeover since last seeing him, according to City Pages.
Later, she heard from a cop she’d briefly met years before who suddenly texted her out of the blue to ask her out. This and other incidents over the years prompted her to contact the state’s Department of Public Safety in August 2011 asking if it was possible to restrict access to her driver’s license file. After telling someone in that department that she’d once heard that fellow officers had been looking up her file, a worker in the office investigated and found that her record had been accessed by cops repeatedly across the state going back to 2007.
Investigators began looking into the matter. One officer told investigators that he’d been out on patrol one day when his supervisor called his cellphone and indicated he should check out Rasmusson’s record. When investigators asked why he was told to run her record, the officer replied, “to look at her picture, um, and this had something, I believe the conversation surrounded plastic surgery that she had done.”
Another officer who’d looked at Rasmusson’s record 13 times over the years indicated he kept looking her up to compare her images to see if “she’s got a new look.”
So far, the discipline for the perpetrators has been light in most cases or non-existent.
The officer who looked at Rasmusson’s record 13 times was subsequently demoted and received a five-day suspension, the harshest penalty anyone has received so far. Others have had warning letters placed in their files or were sent for training.
But according to City Pages, Minneapolis hasn’t disciplined any of the 24 officers who looked up Rasmusson’s record, and St. Paul absolved four of its officers. The city is still considering discipline for 38 others under investigation.
A former U.S. State Department research analyst fared much worse in 2008 when he was was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for illegally accessing the passport files of presidential candidates and celebrities and was sentenced to one year of supervised release and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service.
Lawrence Yontz illegally accessed the passport records for then-presidential candidates Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and admitted that between 2005 and 2008, he read the passport applications of “approximately 200 celebrities, athletes, actors, politicians and their immediate families, musicians, game show contestants, members of the media corps, prominent business professionals, colleagues, associates, neighbors and individuals identified in the press,” according to the Justice Department.
Yontz claimed his illegal snooping was “idle curiosity.”