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There's no mention of a right to privacy in the U.S. or Minnesota Constitutions. But courts do acknowledge a person has a limited right to be left alone and free from unreasonable governmental searches under the Fourth Amendment. The courts have to strike a delicate balance between the competing forces of an individual's right to privacy and, the need for a safe society. In the debate over privacy rights, one thing is clear: there's a benefit to be gained from losing privacy.

  IF YOU DRIVE ON metro-area highways, be warned: you're on camera and watched by the Department of Transportation, the State Patrol and several news organizations. More than 250 cameras perched high atop utility poles provide continuous live images covering 80 percent of Minneapolis-St Paul highways.

This is the Department of Transportation's traffic-control center in Minneapolis. It's a darkened room that glows with the light of numerous television monitors lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Dispatchers such as Teresa Callies watch these monitors for anything that might slow traffic such as this stalled car.

Legislation allowing a two-year test of Photo Cop in Minneapolis failed to gain support last session because no one could agree whether the cameras should capture only a motorist's license plate or the entire front of a car. Listen.

Callies: (on telephone) Did you know about the stalled 36 eastbound at Dale on camera 4? OK. Bye.

This traffic-control center is one example where, in theory, the public gains a safer commute in exchange for giving up a little privacy. Dispatchers not only alert the state patrol to problems, they also call out emergency vehicles and the highway helper to assist stranded motorists. MnDOT is quick to point out the images are not saved and the cameras do not provide images of drivers' faces.

But MnDOT has tested a camera that can capture still pictures of drivers. Called "Photo Cop," it's used in many European countries as way to nab speeders. The cameras snap pictures of violators who then are mailed a ticket. MnDOT would like to use Photo Cop as a way to catch and deter drivers who run red lights and skirt around railroad barricades. MnDOT's Bob Weinholzer says the camera only trips if a car enters the intersection on a red light.

Weinholzer: It's not people who are absent mindedly at the last second, they weren't watching, it's turned yellow and thought, "Well, I better keep going," and turned red just as they entered it. We're talking about large numbers of people who are back 15, 20, 30 seconds after it's already been red.

See samples of how a camera can keep an eye on you on the roads of Minnesota.
Legislation allowing a two-year test of Photo Cop in Minneapolis failed to gain support last session because no one could agree whether the cameras should capture only a motorist's license plate or the entire front of a car, which would show the driver and any passengers in the front seat.

One privacy-rights scholar, George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni, says the public's fear of the government as "big brother" is misplaced. He believes the public has more to fear from corporations that profit from selling personal information.

Etzioni: We are so convinced that the government is the danger that we kept watching the door when all of these other people came in from the back window.

Etzioni argues giving up some personal information in exchange for a safer society can be good. One example, he says, is high-powered computer encryption which disguises the content of computer messages by converting them into codes; codes the government cannot currently break. Etzioni says the government should have the key to decoding those messages to protect the public.

Etzioni: When the guy who blew up the World Trade Center was caught, it turned out he had prepared another strike, another attack. His group was either going to blow up the United Nations or tunnels leading to Manhattan while it was full of cars and people. They encrypted this on a disc. I think the government, with a court order and only with a court order, ought to be able to de-encrypt those messages.

Minnesota laws currently include privacy regulations on the following:

Arrest Records
Computer Crime
Criminal Justice
Government Data Banks
Mailing Lists
School Records
Soc. Security Numbers
Tax Records
Telephone Service/Solicit

There are no current Minnesota laws regarding the following:

Bank Records
Cable TV

Source:Privacy Journal

The head of the state's information policy analysis division says advancing computer technology is driving the privacy-rights dilemmas. Don Gemberling says as long as technology advances, the courts will have to decide where to draw the privacy line.

Gemberling: Much of the modern discussion about privacy is not so much about "privacy," because nobody really agrees on what that means. It's more what's happening with personal information collected, what's maintained, how it's used and what's happening because of computers, just wasn't physically capable of happening years ago.

The courts have shifted the boundaries of privacy vs. public good year-to-year, case-to-case. Just this past year, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed itself on a high-profile privacy case. The court followed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said short-term guests do not have the same protections against unreasonable police searches as residents.

William Mitchell Law Professor Ken Kirwin says one general rule the courts follow is whether the government's conduct invades a person's expectation of privacy.

Kirwin: You have the same thing with the cameras on the freeway. Does it invade a legitimate expectation of privacy? The court would probably say "no." If you're out in the public then you know that members of the public are able to observe you, so really the camera isn't doing anything that members of the public aren't already able to do.

But tangled in this web of privacy is the right of one person's right to privacy from another person. In 1998, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed a long-standing tradition and recognized this right. It ruled two college students could sue a Moorhead-area Walmart for invasion of privacy because a Walmart employee posted a nude photo of them. Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz wrote for the majority that the right to privacy is an integral part of humanity; the heart of the nation's liberty is choosing which parts of our lives shall go public and which parts to hold close.