Montana takes the lead in privacy legislation

Posted at 12:27 PM, Feb 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-06 13:27:42-05

HELENA – New technology means new ways to invade your privacy – and surveillance cameras and your cell phone are just the start. But a handful of bills in the Montana Legislature would limit some of the ways Big Brother is watching.

“A lot of the privacy bills basically should have in place in the last two decades,” said Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings). “When these new technologies came into place, we should have had protections with them, and it seems that no one has really taken that step forward.”

Among Zolnikov’s several bills is one to ban license plate scanners.

“Just when I finalized my bill draft, we learned the DEA had started a prig in 2009 that was secretly collecting millions pictures of license plates and figuring out where people where people were going,” he said, referring to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Montana law enforcement agencies don’t actually have any license plate scanners at the moment and as now written, that bill is opposed by the Montana Department of Justice.

“You know, there is a lot of concern at the federal level for the gathering and the storage of personal data from citizens. But that simply doesn’t happen at the state level and certainly not with law enforcement in Montana,” agency spokesperson John Barnes said.

“That approach would essentially deny local law enforcement the ability to respond to AMBER Alerts, missing and endangered persons. It can mean life and death for someone.”

Zolnikov counters that the way to get ahead of federal intrusion is with state legislation; by stopping activity at the state level, it keeps federal authorities from ultimately using that data.

A couple of bills now in motion go after the “Event Data Recorders” in cars, which record activities in the seconds just before an accident.

Senate Majority Leader Matt Rosendale campaigned for Congress last year in part on privacy, and he has a bill on the recorders. It would mandate that the data on that device is owned by the person who owns the vehicle.

Insurance companies oppose that approach and say it could create problems, like preventing the insurers from using that data when it needs the data to figure out who caused an accident.

“This is the same argument that we constantly hear about privacy and the invasion of privacy: If good people are trying to use information for good purposes, then we shouldn’t be afraid of them taking it from us,” Rosendale said.

There are several other privacy bills in the works at the Legislature – addressing emails, keeping people’s social media passwords from their employers, and restricting when and where law enforcement could set up checkpoints.

Barnes said the Montana Highway Patrol and Zolnikov had reached a general agreement on the scope of that bill, so that it would restrict checkpoints could occur when there’s a likelihood of lawbreaking – during certain holiday evenings, for example.

Many of the bills in motion are among the first of their kind in the nation.