Privacy Advisor


September 1, 2007

‘World's Oldest Living Privacy Bureaucrat' Details History of Privacy Legislation to Twin Cities KnowledgeNet

Don Gemberling, the former Director of the Information Policy Analysis, Division of the State of Minnesota Department of Administration, made a presentation to the Twin Cities KnowledgeNet on July 18 at the Ernst & Young offices in Minneapolis. Before his retirement in 2005, Gemberling was often introduced as the "world's oldest living privacy bureaucrat" because of his work with the development and administration of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the nation's first combined fair information practices and freedom of information statute. The following is a summary of his remarks:

Developments in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including large-scale government surveillance of citizens, misuse of federal government information, increased collection of personal information by both government and the private sector, and the advent of the first large- scale computing devices, led to increased attention to what came to be called "data privacy." Many citizens concerned about privacy quickly reached a strong consensus that individuals had little or no legal rights or recourse when personal information about them was collected, even in situations where the information was seriously misused.

In reaction to these developments, a variety of individuals and institutions began looking at ways of dealing with the "data privacy" problem. At the federal level, Elliot Richardson, then Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, created the Secretary's Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems (the HEW Committee). In 1972, he charged the committee with looking at ways to address increased personal data collection and particularly to focus on lack of protections afforded to individuals when information about them was being abused and misused.

During the same time period, Minnesota State Rep. John Lindstrom presented "data privacy" legislation in the 1973 legislative session. Lindstrom's bill, strongly opposed by the media and law enforcement, passed the House during that session. The Minnesota Senate did not act on comparable legislation.

In the summer of 1973, two major developments occurred. The HEW Committee completed its work and published its findings and conclusions in a report titled, "Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens." Among other things, the committee called for the establishment of what it called a "Code of Fair Information Practices" based on five principles developed by the committee. The committee's work, in part, contributed to the passage of the U.S. federal Privacy Act of 1974.In Minnesota, the Intergovernmental Information Systems Advisory Council (IISAC), a group composed of state and local officials working to coordinate public information system developments, created an advisory committee on Security and Privacy. Membership of this committee included government officials, attorneys, the media and law enforcement (Gemberling began his career with data privacy by staffing this committee). The committee decided its primary task would be to work to improve Lindstrom's bill by addressing a variety of concerns.

In the 1974 legislative session in Minnesota, Sen. Robert Tennessen introduced legislation, drawn from and based on, the recommendations of the HEW Committee. Eventually, one of his bills was combined with the original Lindstrom legislation and recommendations from the IISAC Security and Privacy Committee. This bill was passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed by the governor. The legislation became the country's first "data privacy" or "fair information practices" statute.

Since 1974, this statute has been the subject of much discussion, controversy and amendment by the legislature. In 1979, in response to years of media concern, lawmakers amended the statute by adding language to increase and to protect public access to government data, most often referred to as "freedom of information legislation." At that time, the statute acquired its official title of the "Minnesota Government Data Practices Act" (MGDPA).

The next meeting date for the Twin Cities KnowledgeNet has not been determined yet. Adam Stone, Chair of the Twin Cities KnowledgeNet, is accepting ideas for the next meeting (November is a likely date). Please contact Adam directly at +651.735.4888 or email at