A Privacy Reform Proposal for Utah

The following op-ed was published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

‘Banjo’ has become somewhat of a bad word in Utah, bringing to mind government surveillance and using our private information in ways we didn’t intend or authorize. The company has come under fire recently for its founder’s racist past, but there are many of us who have been monitoring its work for some time, concerned about the ramifications of applying artificial intelligence to our information in order to help the government.

The broad claims are noble — we all want to catch bad guys more quickly, and at a reduced cost for taxpayers. But when technological advancements outpace the ability of legislatures and courts to keep up, this typically means government assumes broad power and deep access to information about each person… and we’re simply to trust that it’s all being used appropriately and with sufficient oversight.

But what happens when that’s not the case?

Last year, the public learned that the government had been using facial recognition technology, scanning all our driver license photos multiple times daily. This technology was never headline news nor the subject of a legislative vote when it was introduced; the public was entirely unaware that this was being done.

This is one of many examples of the government getting ahead of public awareness when it comes to tools and technologies that can undermine privacy if not appropriately limited. To impose such limits, policy makers first have to know that the technology is even being used.

These concerns boil down to a failure of process — with the public not having a meaningful way to stay informed about, or give consent to, these tools and technologies. A conversation is needed, at a minimum, before determining whether Big Brother is incrementally implemented in the Beehive State. 

While Banjo sparked the latest round of concerns, these issues are not new, and they are far larger than any one company. We believe it’s time to substantively address them. So, we are proposing a Privacy Protection Act for Utah — the first of its kind nationwide to create an oversight process when it comes to the acquisition and adoption of technologies or tools that implicate, or might undermine, our personal privacy. 

The proposal calls for a State Privacy Officer inside the State Auditor’s office, whose job it will be to develop best practices and guidelines for government agencies to protect privacy, screen requests to review technologies or tools that may violate privacy, and perform an ongoing analysis of the collection of personally identifying information by various government agencies, state and local.

This individual would work in conjunction with a Privacy Oversight Committee, composed of experts and advocates dealing with technology, cybersecurity, and privacy law, along with representatives from law enforcement. The committee will evaluate flagged technologies or tools that merit scrutiny, and issue recommendations to the Legislature regarding whether they should be allowed or prohibited.

Think of this as a sunrise review committee — before jumping into the deep end with questionable tools or technologies, a local panel of experts would be solicited for an analysis to evaluate whether the proposed process strikes the right balance between the interests of government and the right of privacy for individuals.

While it is important for law enforcement to be able to effectively do their jobs, this must not come at the expense of the interests and rights of the individuals whom they serve. And that’s why these public conversations are needed; we can’t balance interests without talking openly about how they might compete or align with one another.

For too long, questions of privacy have been dealt with reactively, after the fact in courts — if they are even litigated at all. Governments have generally proceeded to do whatever they wish, and only later when challenged might they alter their practices or limit their use of a certain tool. The Privacy Protection Act proposes an opportunity to instead proactively respond — to find the balance sooner, rather than later.