Limited and Open Government

Utah Takes Steps to Protect Civil Liberties

Technology is a powerful tool that can be incredibly helpful, but also detrimental to individuals if used incorrectly. Otherwise innocent people are put in the crosshairs of law enforcement for no legitimate reason other than technology (which is often flawed) pointed law enforcement in their direction.

It was just last year when Utahns discovered that the Drivers License Division was allowing federal and state agencies to use the driver’s license photo database and use facial recognition scanning technology to identify potential culprits of crimes. It is worth noting the database does include the faces of minors, as children as young as 15 years old can have a driver’s permit in Utah. Facial recognition was being used for a decade without the public’s knowledge.

Most recently, Banjo, a Utah tech company, made headlines after it was revealed that it had obtained a costly contract to build an intricate, real-time surveillance system for the Attorney General’s office. The software boasted the ability to listen to 911 calls, scan social media posts, monitor traffic cameras, track the location of police cars, and more—providing quick and precise details of individual behavior.

The largest problem is that law enforcement is actively being an early adopter of developing technologies, and the public has no knowledge of the acquisition or use of the technology until years after the fact, if ever. While some might argue that the courts should later decide the appropriate balance between law enforcement’s interest and personal privacy, courts have been inconsistent in their rulings, and it could take years to get a solution — if the technology is even discovered and challenged.

In reviewing what’s happened, it has become clear that a balanced and transparent approach is needed for public input and legislative oversight. Last May we introduced a proposal to address this ever increasing problem and the Utah Legislature took notice.

This year, Representative Francis Gibson carried House Bill 243, that creates a first-in-the-nation process that brings more transparency in the acquisition and use of technology by law enforcement entities. This legislation had broad, bipartisan support and passed through the legislature unanimously and has been signed by Governor Cox.

The bill creates a process of reviewing and vetting various surveillance technologies law enforcement wants to deploy through the use of two privacy officers. This enables the legislature to ensure that the right guardrails and oversight exist to protect civil liberties while still achieving public safety. Additionally, the bill places a premium on transparency through ongoing reporting to the legislature and opportunities for the public to engage in the process.

By focusing on transparency and implementing guardrails upfront, the bill is a step in the right direction towards reestablishing a proper balance between the government performing its job of promoting public safety without compromising civil liberties and privacy rights of individuals.