By Jane Black Richard Neumeister is a superhero in the field of protecting individual privacy rights -- though you wouldn't know it to look at him. He has a bushy beard, a long pony tail, and worn-out jeans. He carries his stuff in a paper bag. He has no car, no cell phone, and no e-mail account. He has just one credit card to his name -- from department store Marshall Field's.
And yet, Neumeister, 48, has had a hand in shaping every piece of privacy and data-protection legislation in his home state of Minnesota for the last quarter century. As a volunteer lobbyist, he has helped employees win access to their personnel files, patients get free copy of medical records, and assured that citizens receive notification of any electronic surveillance within 60 days.
Last May, Neumeister was instrumental in getting the country's first Internet privacy bill passed. Effective March 1, 2003, the new law requires Internet service providers, even those headquartered outside Minnesota, to inform Minnesotans how ISPs will handle their personal data on the Net. "A lot of people's first reaction is, 'Who's the weird guy with the beard and pony tail?'" he laughs. "After a while, they realize that I'm sincere...[and] sometimes I know a hell of lot more than the paid people do."
HARDLY A PRO. The Bush Administration may be in war mode, and federal privacy advocates on the defensive. But at the state level, from Trenton, N.J., to Sacramento, Calif., progressive privacy bills are gaining momentum -- thanks to the efforts of men and women like Neumeister.
The New Jersey Assembly recently joined the California legislature in considering bills that would bar financial institutions from sharing marketing information about customers with other commercial concerns, unless the customers agree to it first. In California, Democratic state Senator Jackie Speier is more hopeful that her financial-privacy bill, which was narrowly rejected last session, will win passage this year (see BW Online, 7/11/02, "Will Voters Opt for Opting In?").
If Neumeister doesn't look the part of a sharp professional lobbyist, well, it's because he's not. He works part-time as a driver for Metro Mobility, a St. Paul transportation service for the disabled. One day a week, he also works at Shinders, a local newsstand, where he can leaf through and buy his favorite comic books. He loves books and carries armloads of them around everywhere. On his current reading list: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler and an analysis of the Allies' strategic alternatives during World War II.
NONPROFIT BACKGROUND. Still, to characterize him as an accidental lobbyist isn't quite right, either. Neumeister grew up in St. Paul public housing. His father was a disabled veteran, and the two spent much time at the local community center. Later, at St. Paul's Hamline University, he studied political science and sociology, and spent time working in Washington, D.C., at Close Up, a nonprofit organization that brings high-school students to the nation's capital to teach them about how the political process works.
Back in the Twin Cities, Neumeister had stints at the League of Women Voters and citizens' lobbying group Common Cause. When he took a job at a juvenile treatment center, lobbying became a hobby. He showed up at committee hearings. He got to know legislators. He educated himself and others on fair information practices which, among other things, demand that each person have access to their own data and the right to correct it.
"He's effective because he's persistent," says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal. "State legislators are reluctant to vote against privacy if they know an advocate is watching them."
TIGHTER NET. This year, Neumeister's crusade is making sure a new interagency law-enforcement database, dubbed CrimNet, doesn't violate privacy rights. The $100 million state project aims to link together 1,100 statewide criminal- and juvenile-justice systems so that prosecutors and law-enforcement officials don't let criminals slip through the cracks. A statewide survey conducted in the late 1990s found that the best-performing Minnesota county could pull up a person's complete criminal record only 70% of the time. The worst performing county's record was 10%.
All well and good. Neumeister just wants to ensure that citizens, as well as law enforcement, have access to the information with the click of a mouse. It's the fastest way for ordinary folks to find out if the information the government has about them is correct.
"Rich's approach works because he's focused, he understands the issues, and he can connect with legislators," says Chris Hoofnagle, a veteran privacy lobbyist who serves as legal counsel for the Washington (D.C.)-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "We need Neumeisters in every state -- and in Congress."
"JUST A PAIN." Sometimes, Neumeister's lobbying methods can be an acquired taste. Gopher State Senator Steve Kelley, a Democrat representing a district near Minnetonka, recalls his first encounter with Neumeister in 1992. Kelley, a freshman House member at the time, was shepherding a law through the legislature requiring Minnesota colleges and universities to share more information with school districts about students needing remedial education. "Rich showed up in a conference committee [the final leg of the process] talking about how this was a privacy issue, as well as an education policy issue," Kelley remembers. "At that point, he was just a pain -- someone coming between me and something that I thought was perfectly reasonable."
The bill ultimately passed -- with a provision that statistics on the information collected would be made publicly available in aggregate form, thanks to Neumeister's peskiness. But Kelley came to respect Neumeister's diligence and commitment.
"I think it's good to have a privacy advocate around -- especially right now. There are so many people who, because of the concern about terrorism, are ready to swing the pendulum on privacy back a little too far in favor of surveillance. On the other hand, for those of us who have to arrive at the compromises, it sometimes can be hard to get Rich to cut you a little slack," Kelley laughs.
LAST-MINUTE RESCUE. Would Neumeister ever consider running for office himself? No way, he says. Public office is, well, a little too public. "If I'm leafing through a magazine at the local 7-Eleven, I don't want someone saying, 'Hey did you know our representative reads that?'" he says. "I don't want my life to be an open book."
And after all, if anything comes up, Neumeister knows he'll have his say. His apartment in downtown St. Paul is within a mile of the capitol building. One time, several years ago, Neumeister was at home relaxing, his TV tuned to a public-access station. He noticed that it was broadcasting a hearing about a bill that would make criminal histories more publicly available. So he threw on jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of old tennis shoes and ran -- literally -- to the statehouse to testify. He arrived in the nick of time to change it. Just like a superhero. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column