Things were never easy for Amy Krekelberg at work.
She became a Minneapolis Park Police officer in 2008. About a year later, she began dating an officer who had previously been her trainer. Rumors travel fast in the cop community, and soon she found her fellow officers prying into her love life, even accusing her of sleeping with her boyfriend just so she could pass training.
Then came the romantic advances. Her colleagues repeatedly asked her on dates and sent unwanted sexy text messages – even though she hadn’t given out her phone number. They mostly came from men in the department, but some of the women too. It continued even after she married her boyfriend, and it sometimes escalated to unsolicited butt-groping and hair-pulling.
Then, in 2010, she was honored by the Park Police Chief Linda Bergstrom as Officer of the Year… which only made things worse. There were more comments, more touching, more unwanted attention. It wasn’t until 2013, after she became a fully-fledged Minneapolis police officer, that she found out how it was happening.
That was the year that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced that one of its employees, John Hunt, had used government databases to access thousands of people’s driving records for “no work-related reason.” Most of his targets were women. Krekelberg was one of them.
There’s a lot of sensitive information you can learn from a driver’s license – where someone lives, her height, weight, what she looks like. One person using that information for purely personal reasons was spooky enough. But Krekelberg decided to find out who else had been snooping on her records and asked for an audit.
The results were something like lifting up a rock and finding a thriving spider metropolis underneath. Her records had been viewed nearly 1,000 times between 2003 and 2013, even though she’s never been under investigation. Over half of those lookups had been by other police officers from over 40 different departments and agencies… some of them in the middle of the night.
She was “shocked” and “disgusted,” according to a complaint filed at the end of 2013. Without further ado, she sued the city of Minneapolis for violating the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act and otherwise failing to keep random people from looking at her private info for no reason.
“This pattern of failure to train, monitor, supervise, and discipline demonstrates… an indifference to the rights of the citizens and others whose information has been so widely accessed,” the complaint said. And this sort of thing happens all the time in police departments, "disproportionately to women."
On Wednesday, a jury awarded her $585,000, including $300,000 in punitive damages from two specific officers, who reportedly looked her up after she turned down their offers to date her.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Sega sent a statement saying the city was “disappointed” in the verdict. Some of the police departments’ policies have changed over the years, she said. As she told Wired in a previous interview, there’s now more “awareness” of what’s appropriate, and employees have to cite their reasons for combing through DMV records.
As Wired pointed out, when we think of data privacy, we normally think about tech giants like Facebook and Google getting nosy and doing god knows what with what they learn. It’s less often we worry about what the public sector might do. But the fact is, government data is spilled all the time, and only sometimes on purpose.
In January, the Oregon Department of Human Services accidentally exposed the private data of 645,000 residents because nine employees clicked on some “suspicious links” and got phished. In May, Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey learned of a massive data breach in which more than 23,000 passwords were stolen. Three weeks later, officials still have no idea how it happened. In June, leaders of Riviera Beach, Florida agreed to pay a group of ransomware hackers $600,000 to stop holding the city’s data hostage.
As for Krekelberg, many other lawsuits against cities in Minnesota have been settled. Hers is the only one yet to have a day in court. She’s still with the Minneapolis Police Department, working a desk job.