Limited and Open Government

Improving Government Data Transparency in Utah

Imagine if you were in a relationship where you did not know what your partner was doing the supermajority of the time. It would bother you, it would put a strain on the relationship, and it would hinder your trust in them. 

That’s very much the case with the relationship between the government and individuals today. Studies have shown that general trust in the government has been on the decline for some time, in part because the government has done a lot of shady things that shake the trust of individuals in their government. 

It was not that long ago that Americans discovered the rampant abuse of surveillance technology programs at the National Security Agency to spy on Americans. The courts recently ruled the program and the way it was administered domestically was a complete violation of the constitution.

These issues are not just limited to the federal government. It happens in state governments, too. It was only recently that Utahns discovered the state’s driver’s license division had been allowing federal and state law agencies to access their driver’s license photo database and use facial recognition to scan the faces in the database to identify potential criminals. This included scanning the faces of minors. 

But that’s not all! 

It was also discovered that the Drivers License Division had a memorandum of agreement with the University of Utah to provide sensitive information about Utahns. From height and weight to mothers’ maiden names and previous living addresses, the sheer amount of information being collected on Utahns without their consent was quite alarming, and understandably so. In the 21st century, that kind of information can easily be used by hackers to conduct all kinds of illicit activities, notably identity theft.

When Utahns sign up for their licenses, they reasonably think they are signing up for permission to drive on the road. At no point were they informed that the information they were required to provide to the division would be shared with the University of Utah as well. The database, known as The Utah Population Database, touted by the University as “the largest of its kind in the country,” has the personal and highly sensitive information of over 4 million people. 

The database also includes information from a variety of other sources, including private medical records. The reality is that so much remains unknown about this database and what kinds of information it has about millions of Utahns and where it is coming from. 

There needs to be more transparency by the government in clearly conveying what information is being collected on Utahns and what is being done with it. To be clear, the work that the University is doing is very good scientific work. No one will deny the benefits of medical research—it can save countless lives. However, it should not come at the expense of a Utahns reasonable expectation of privacy, and the government should not lend a hand in violating that expectation. Fortunately, the legislature is very cognizant of these issues and making strides in increasing the transparency of the state. 

Last session, Representative Karianne Lisonbee sponsored House Bill 183, which was passed by the state legislature. The bill aimed to create more transparency in the process of what the University of Utah was doing with individuals’ sensitive data. 

This bill was a step in the right direction, but more work remains to be done. The state legislature should continue the work of increasing government transparency and is something Utahns should support wholeheartedly.