Don Gemberling spent his earliest years as a civil servant during the late 1960s helping Minnesota establish its first criminal-justice information system and teaching police about the emerging technology. At the time, officers in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul collected police intelligence on biker gangs and other organized criminals, Gemberling said in an interview.
By the early 1970s, however, the then-head of Minnesota’s infant IT infrastructure converted Gemberling to the cause of privacy rights long before many anticipated the threat posed by government databases, criminal or otherwise. His mentor, a moderate Republican named Dan Magraw, warned that the easier it became to preserve large volumes of personal information electronically, the greater the risk it could be abused and entered incorrectly, potentially destroying someone’s credit rating or erroneously leading to an employment denial.
So Magraw helped persuade the state legislature to pass a bill in 1974 that became one of the first government computer privacy laws of its kind in the United States. Gemberling drafted language for the bill, and after it was enacted, he spent the rest of his career until he retired in 2004 teaching Minnesota’s public workforce how to comply with the law.
It came to be known as the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and the state’s unique effort to address privacy implications created by new databases preceded even the groundbreaking federal Privacy Act of 1974, passed months later in the wake of Nixon-era spy scandals to ensure the confidentiality of personal information such as Social Security numbers held by U.S. government agencies.