The state of Mississippi is making millions off your personal information.
Just how many millions is hard to figure. The Department of Revenue said fees charged to obtain public records are reported by the Legislative Budget Office and posted online. Which is true. Sort of.
Take the Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol, the division responsible for producing driving records that are used by insurers to help set rates, employers to screen out the bad eggs, private investigators and a fairly long list of other people and uses. It charges $11 a record and there are about two million licensed drivers.
That $11 charge is lumped together with a host of other charges, such as drivers licenses fees in the Drivers Services Fund, which brought in more than $13 million in 2015 and not quite $11 million in 2016, the two latest years available.
While a lot of people nationwide got into a dither because personal information from Facebook was used to target ads and manipulate voters, states have been selling personal data for years.
Who can get what data, especially when it comes to drivers licenses, is governed by a federal law, which has been tested and upheld by the Supreme Court.
When your state gets a D-
The DPS did not respond to a request for the exact amount it collects for selling driver information. And that information doesn't appear readily available on the state Department of Revenue or Transparency websites.
But it's not easy getting any information from Transparency.
"Mississippi’s interface, for example, requires site visitors to enter prompts into a complex command box before viewing any information on the site," researchers for the US Public Interest Research Group route in a report that gave Mississippi a D- in providing information about spending. "One researcher said of the site, 'I consider myself a pretty smart person, but this site is impossible for me to figure out.'”
But that's not the only data the state government offers. The state also sells voter records. It collected $29,400 for statewide voter rolls in 2015, the year of the last statewide election.
The Secretary of State's office says it is merely recouping the cost of providing the public records under the state's Public Records Act.
"These are standard fees related to the cost of creating, acquiring, and maintaining the data in SEMS," Leah Rupp Smith, spokeswoman for the office wrote in an email . "These standard fees account for retrieval time, legal review, and expenses for (Statewide Election Management System) maintenance. SEMS is expensive to maintain, and costs have climbed over the years as a result of security concerns.
"We continue to make an effort, though, to reduce our records fees to ensure access to public information."
The price of voter rolls is all over the map. In Alabama, it is a penny a voter, which sounds like a bargain until you find there are 3 million voters. That's 30 grand for a statewide list, making Mississippi's seem like a bargain.
Mississippi hardly the priciest
The Secretary of State's Office charges a $100 "set-up fee" then $250 for countywide, county district, municipal or municipal district list, $500 for a legislative district, judicial district or district attorney list, $1,000 for a congressional district, Supreme Court district, Court of Appeals district and $2,000 for a statewide list.
However, in Arkansas, a list costs $2.50. In Louisiana, it's $5,000. In Tennessee, it's $2,100. Arizona charges $32,500, the most in the nation.
Who is in the market for this data?
Consulting firms refine and repackage that information and sell it to campaigns to help them target get out the vote efforts. And, of course, candidates and political parties.
But President Donald Trump's Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was unable to get voter information, including the Social Security numbers that aren't provided in Mississippi. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann told the commission to "go jump in the Gulf."
Charging for information and for using online services such as drivers license and hunting license purchases and renewals are ways to shift the burden from taxpayers to the people who use the services, said Rep. Scott DeLano, the chairman of the House Technology Committee.
"We were charged with finding ways to do that," said DeLano. "And one of them was Mississippi Interactive."
The user pays
MI is a public-private partnership between the state the subsidiary of Kansas-based NIC Inc. that has helped the state launch 80 new websites and a 126 new online services paid for by fees.
"The work is funded through a transaction-based funding model, which means those who use the services (citizens and businesses) pay for the services," Drew Levanway, MI director of operations, wrote in an email. "A small fee, typically $1 -$3, is added to the statutory fee. The state sets the low transaction fee at a 'market acceptable rate,' meaning aligned with what other states charge for similar online services, as well as a fee that will not discourage use.
"This funding model allows the state to provide innovative government solutions without making an upfront development investment and without using appropriated taxpayer budget dollars. It is important to note that many online services do not charge any transaction fee."
That partnership is overseen by the Electronic Government Oversight Committee, which includes state Department of Information Technology Services director Craig Orgeron, and representatives from the Secretary of State's Office, State Auditor's Office, Department of Finance and Administration, Department of Public Safety, State Treasurer's Office and Mississippi Interactive.