Prosecutors Charge Ex-DNR Official in Data Breach

Posted at: 02/07/2013 3:30 PM
By: Leslie Dyste

A Department of Natural Resources middle manager illegally accessed driver's license data belonging to thousands of Minnesota women and kept encrypted pictures of 172 of them on a work computer before he was fired, prosecutors alleged in charges filed Thursday.

John Austin Hunt, 48, of Woodbury was charged with six counts, including misconduct by a public employee, unauthorized computer access, using encryption to conceal a crime and unlawful use of public data. The charges are misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. The most serious counts carry a potential sentence of up to a year in jail and a $3,000 fine.

Over 90 percent of the people whose privacy was violated were women, the complaint alleges, adding they include federal and state politicians, state legislators, appellate and district court judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, Twin Cities TV news reporters, and past and current DNR employees and their family members.

Those queries "clearly exceeded the scope of his employment duties and authority as a DNR employee," the complaint alleges.

The complaint also alleges Hunt kept an encrypted file on a work computer called "Mug Shot" with license photos of 172 women, and that a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent also found 26 other license photos of women elsewhere on the computer. The agent determined the photos all were downloaded between March and October last year.

Hunt did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment and he has not spoken publicly about his actions. The complaint does not say if he gave investigators or his supervisors any explanations for his motives. Court records do not list an attorney for him. He was not arrested, but was summoned to appear in court in St. Paul on March 5.

Hunt was the DNR Enforcement Division's administrative manager, with the rank of captain, and had legal access to the records for official business only. He would have seen a warning to that effect each of the 19,276 times he queried the state Driver and Vehicle Services database from 2008 through last October, the complaint said. The database includes names, addresses, photographs, heights, weights, hair and eye color, and other information on each driver licensed in the state. Many subjects were queried more than once.

He averaged about 4,000 queries per year, but his supervisor told investigators his job duties would not have required him to make more than 400 annually, primarily for conducting background checks on people seeking jobs with the DNR. Most of his queries were into the driver's license database, but 426 were for license plate data.

The complaint further alleges 11,747 of those queries were made while Hunt was off duty, and 7,085 were made while he was on duty.

The DNR fired Hunt Jan. 11 and sent letters to around 5,000 Minnesotans whose records he allegedly accessed. The letters said there was no indication the data was sold, disclosed to others or used for criminal purposes, and that no Social Security numbers were involved. When the DNR announced his firing, Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he was conducting a thorough review of employee access to the data and redoubling the training required of employees who use that data. One of Hunt's responsibilities was providing that kind of training.

Minnesota's legislative auditor is investigating the data breach, and some lawsuits already have been filed by people claiming privacy violations.  Some lawmakers are pursuing better safeguards against database misuse and tougher penalties for violators.  Investigations have found that misuse of the database is common. More than a dozen communities have paid out over $1 million combined in settlements to a former police officer who claimed more than 140 other officers of improperly viewed her information.

The Duluth city attorney's office is prosecuting this case because of conflicts of interest among prosecutors in the Twin Cities involving the people whose records were viewed. The charges were filed in Ramsey County.

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