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Utah Lawmakers Considering Changes After Backlash Over Facial Recognition Searches

Photo of Utah Capitol at night.
Brian Albers / KUER

Utah lawmakers from both parties say they make take legislative action following admission by the Utah Department of Public Safety that the agency routinely runs facial recognition software through a state database of driver’s license and mugshot photos.

DPS is facing widespread criticism after The Washington Post reported that Utah is one of at least three states which employs the search method to aid in criminal investigations at the request of local and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The report showed that the state ran nearly 2,000 searches on behalf of outside agencies between October 2015 and November 2017.

A joint statement released Tuesday afternoon from House Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate President Stuart Adams and minority leadership in both legislative chambers expressed confidence in DPS but said they may consider changes to Utah law.

“While their work is important, equally important is the privacy of Utahns. Any search must be authorized by law, done in a careful and limited manner, and effectively balance privacy concerns with law enforcement and public safety needs,” the statement read.

“We will continue to closely monitor this situation to determine if legislative action is needed in the future,” it continued. 

Critics have called the searches a violation of privacy. 

“The fact of the matter is that Utahns are having their faces searched, scanned and turned over — in certain instances, to ICE — without warrants, without court oversight, and effectively in secrecy. Whether you are conservative or liberal, that is a problem,” said Alvaro Bedoya, founding director of Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, which originally obtained the data.

DPS Spokeswoman Marissa Cote defended the practice Monday, saying the agency runs facial recognition searches through the state’s database to assist in criminal investigations. She said DPS only conducts searches when the requesting agency provides a criminal case number or intelligence report.

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

But after a briefing from DPS, a formal statement from Herbert’s office said the governor “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.”

DPS denies ever giving outside agencies access to the database and says all searches are run by state information specialists. 

Cote said less than 10% of requests resulted in possible matches, but some of those matches resulted in arrests for crimes such as drug trafficking.

Bedoya said the fact that arrests may have stemmed from the searches does not justify their use.

“I think people in Utah cherish their right to privacy and cherish their right to not be subject to law enforcement dragnets,” he said. “I think this is, at best, inappropriate and arguably illegal.”

He also said that facial recognition technology misidentifies people of color, women and younger people at higher rates.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah said the searches warrant a second look from lawmakers and other officials.

“Whether that is legislation or reconsidering the scope of agreements between the federal government and local law enforcement, it at least raises that there needs to be a discussion about this,” said Marina Lowe, the ACLU of Utah’s legislative and policy counsel.

Lowe said some states require permission or a court order before running such searches. 

“Perhaps that’s the direction that Utah should head as well,” she 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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