Minnesota Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, takes up difficult technology policy questions on a regular basis. From telecommunications to renewable energy issues, the lawmaker and attorney has had an active last couple of years authoring a variety of bills on those topics.
In an interview with Government Technology on Friday, May 23, Atkins discussed two of the major mobile device issues he tackled in Minnesota’s latest legislative session and other technology matters on the horizon.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Government Technology: You spearheaded legislation that requires kill switches to be in smartphones sold in Minnesota. Why is this such an important issue for you?
Joe Atkins: The bill was sent to [Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton] and signed into law less than a week ago and is the first kill switch law in the country. It transcends two key issues. One being privacy, the other being public safety. One in three robberies in the country now involves a smartphone. In Minneapolis, on the University of Minnesota campus, 62 percent of robberies are due to theft of smartphones and they’re growing in their level of violence. Just last week we had two U of M students robbed at gunpoint and that’s becoming a common occurrence.
So taking the incentive away by taking away the value of a smartphone is something that law enforcement and others, including myself, are convinced will help provide a vaccine for that epidemic of smartphone theft.
GT: What other area of technology policymaking do you think will come to the forefront in Minnesota over the next several years?
JA: The other thing that was hot this session and will continue to be is the level of court review relative to cellphone tracking and location. We passed this a bill this session … requiring a warrant for law enforcement to track people using their cellphone location. But I think we’ve just started to scratch the surface with respect to those sorts of issues.
In addition to the cellphone location, you start talking about what the government and law enforcement in particular are able to access when they take custody of a device. And whether or not they’re able to do an inventory search as they would a trunk of a car that they impound. But with all the constitutional and privacy issues, the mind starts to reel as you dig deeper into these discussions.
GT: What’s your greatest challenge as a lawmaker and why?
JA: Time. There’s only a brief window when we’re in session. And for those of us that are still trying to enjoy full-time careers, it’s just hard to balance. You named me one of the top technology-savvy legislators, but I always feel like I’m behind in spite of my best efforts to keep up with what’s going on both in the industry and technologically. And if I’m feeling that way on a particular issue, imagine where my colleagues are at when they’re trying to keep up to speed on questions or concerns their constituents are asking about.
GT: You spent a decade as mayor of Inver Grove Heights. Are technology issues at the local government level significantly different from the state level?
JA: Yes, mostly because we didn’t deal with [big] technology questions. Our issue was siting cellphone towers or zoning. You have 100 people showing up because they don’t want an ugly tower in their neighborhood and a few months later they say they do want a tower because they had [poor] cell coverage. That was pretty much it though.
GT: Lately we’ve seen many of the major telecommunications and wireless companies announce mergers. If they go through, do you see that as helpful or harmful for technology innovation?
JA: I’m doing my darndest to keep an open mind, but I am very skeptical of the mergers. I’m deeply concerned about a “Walmart-ing” of the world as we know it, where they come in and capture so much of the market that they can do anything they want to. For a while that may mean lower prices, but eventually it means that they have so much of the customer base that there’s no place [else] for people to go.
The one thing we can take solace in though, is that every time we turn around, there seems to be a new way to find the service you’re seeking, an end-run around some of the big players. I suspect that is why the big players are merging into even bigger players.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.