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Utah Agency Disputes Details In Reports That FBI, ICE Mine Utahns' Driver's License Information

Photo of ICE officer.
Wikimedia Commons
Utah Department of Public Safety says that it assists Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies by using facial recognition software to comb through Utah’s driver license database, but only in criminal investigations.";

Utah officials are disputing some details from reports that the state allows federal agencies to scour photos and information from its driver’s license database.

The Washington Post report details how agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the FBI run facial recognition software through driver’s license databases in order to match criminal suspects.

Records originally obtained by Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology show that Utah’s Department of Public Safety ran more than 1,000 searches of its database between 2015 and 2017.

DPS Spokeswoman Marissa Cote acknowledged that the state’s database is used to assist in criminal investigations, but only when the requesting agency provides a criminal case number or intelligence report. 

“They do not have free reign, or access, or anything like that,” Cote said. 

Cote said the searches are run by state information specialists and images are run through the database “for lead purposes only” and not to initiate investigations.

Still, a range of lawmakers and advocacy groups say they’re concerned about Utahns’ information being mined by facial recognition software.

“Without knowledge or consent, everyone with a Utah driver’s license or driving privilege card may have had their photo analyzed thousands of times by facial recognition software that is known to be inaccurate,” said ACLU of Utah’s Marina Lowe. “These reports confirm that a massive, hidden surveillance infrastructure isn’t just science fiction, it’s already happening.”

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, chairs Utah’s Hispanic Legislative Caucus and said the searches are especially concerning because the state allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses and ICE requested information from Utah’s database. 

“No one registers for a driver license or state identification card with the belief that this information could be used against them. This is a potential breach of trust that should concern every single Utah citizen,” he said. 

When asked whether ICE could use the database to search for suspected undocumented immigrants, Cote said “there has to be a criminal case open and an investigation per individual for us to assist.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Monday morning that he and Gov. Gary Herbert were “very concerned” by the initial report and were “in the process of investigating what kind of access they’ve had, and how frequent and how broad that access is.”

A formal statement from Herbert’s office after a briefing from DPS seemed pleased with the agency’s clarifications. 

“Governor Herbert believes in respecting the privacy of Utah residents and he is committed to ensuring that Utah’s facial recognition system will only be used for law enforcement purposes and never against law abiding Utahns,” the statement said.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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