Data Man

When state legislators weigh privacy rights against the public's right to know, they call Don Gemberling: Big Brother's Big Brother

The offices of the Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) are situated on the third floor of the Centennial Office Building, an imposing gray and singularly ugly edifice a couple of blocks south of the capitol dome in St. Paul. There, working in a maze of cubicles and filing cabinets, the division's six employees go about explaining the nuances of data-practices law to both public employees and private citizens. The staffers spend much of their time answering informal questions over the telephone, but they also draft written opinions upon request. These opinions (there were 96 last year) are submitted to Gemberling for his review, then passed on to his supervisor, David Fisher, commissioner of the Department of Administration, for final approval.

Newspaper clippings have been tacked to a bulletin board outside Gemberling's office. The articles reflect the breadth of Gemberling's milieu: There is a story about a former University of Minnesota researcher who accidentally posted children's confidential psychiatric records on a Web site; another addresses the case of a former employee at the Hennepin Conservation District who is now ensnarled in a court battle with district board members over access to their internal e-mail messages. Government e-mail has, Gemberling notes, become an increasingly common subject of data disputes. And then there is a piece about whether or not audits of Native American casinos should be available to the public. Gemberling says the gambling imbroglio, which has pitted the Department of Public Safety against Attorney General Mike Hatch, has "gotten political." It's an observation he makes with a slight hint of disdain.

Tacked beside those clippings are two quotations, printed out on office paper: one from Václav Havel ("Courage means going against majority opinion in the name of the truth"); the other credited to Upton Sinclair ("It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding"). There is also a greeting card with a picture of President Bush and the First Lady dancing cheek to cheek, part of a computer-generated mailing from the White House which was addressed to the IPAD. Beside the picture, Gemberling has tacked up a message of his own: "Please note, the posting of the First Couple's picture and accompanying letter are not intended as a political statement. They are intended as a statement on the computer age and how computers can turn a government agency into a source of campaign contributions."

George Peters

"I just got this big envelope in the mail, and I thought, 'What did they do? Scan the entire State of Minnesota phone book?'" Gemberling asks with a bemused air. Gemberling has been asking questions about the ways in which government uses the information it collects for most of his adult life.

He says that he was sensitized to the issue as a young soldier. In 1966, upon enlisting in the army, he was given a standard form called a DD 298. Among other things, the waiver contained a list of "subversive" organizations such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialists Alliance, and asked the newly inducted soldiers whether they had ever been affiliated with any of them. A political-science major at Macalester College with "a family labor union background," Gemberling was interested in various left-wing organizations. From time to time, he corresponded with the groups. He says he acknowledged the contact on DD 298, then promptly forgot about it.

When he joined his battalion in Germany, he applied to be an intelligence clerk. "I was about to get the job, when the officer that interviewed me pointed to the waiver and said, 'Tell me about this.'" Gemberling explained his background. The officer, while sympathetic, was in no mood for the additional paperwork an intelligence assignment would have required, so he made Gemberling a supply clerk. A year passed, and Gemberling had yet to be promoted. When he asked his first sergeant about it, he discovered that his personnel file had legs. "[The sergeant] was in a position to make trouble for me. And he looked at my records and he decided that I was a communist," he recalls. By an unfortunate coincidence, Gemberling and his pregnant wife happened to be renting an apartment from the sergeant's in-laws, who subsequently evicted them: "[The form] caused me a lot of problems. It cost me money. It cost me a promotion. And it cost me an apartment. And it gave me a personal experience in what recorded information can do to you. With people who are drawn into this field, that is hardly unique."

After finishing his stint in the service, Gemberling returned to Minnesota, where he landed a job with the Department of Administration. For the first few years, he spent his time working with police, developing ways to computerize criminal data. At the time, there was a sea change in the public's attitude about the ways in which the government collected and handled information. Since the beginning of the cold war, public agencies enjoyed free rein, particularly those acting in the name of national security. But revelations about abuses--from rampant FBI surveillance of political activists and average citizens to the Nixon White House's notorious enemies list--led to calls for reform.

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