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Politics & Government

Utah Lawmakers Consider Regulating Law Enforcement’s Use Of Facial Recognition Software

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KUER File Photo
Utah lawmakers have been working to address the use of facial recognition technology since July 2019.

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill to prevent law enforcement agencies from scanning the state’s drivers’ license database using facial recognition technology — unless they’re investigating high-level crimes.

The Senate gave the bill its initial approval Friday, but the full chamber needs to vote on it one more time before it can move on to the House.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle started paying attention to this issue in July 2019. A report from Georgetown University found the Utah Department of Public Safety ran facial recognition searches on its drivers license database on behalf of outside law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The report found that this happened nearly 2,000 times from October 2015 to November 2017. In late 2019, legislation designed to address the issue fell apart.

“Currently we have absolutely no restrictions whatsoever in state code on the use of facial recognition,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City. “This bill places standards, raises the bar, increases requirements for training and capacity for those who use the process.”

The bill allows Utah DPS to search the database on behalf of other law enforcement agencies only if they’re investigating a felony, violent crime or a threat to someone’s life. They can also search the images if they’re trying to indentify someone who has died or is incapacitated.

It explicitly prohibits searching through the database for civil immigration offenses. Crossing the border illegally can also result in a criminal charge: a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for a second offense. Federal authorities could search for people accused of that felony offense under Thatcher’s bill.

However, President Joe Biden officially rescinded a Trump administration policy earlier this week that directed federal prosecutors to prosecute every instance of crossing the border illegally, and to instead use discretion when deciding which cases to prosecute.

Just two out of 29 state senators voted against Thatcher’s bill. Sen. John Johnson, R-Ogden, was one of them. He said the bill didn’t do enough to protect people’s privacy.

“The only protection as far as what kinds of crimes can't access this database? It's immigration officials,” he said. “I don't see any protections for privacy. I think this amounts to an improper search.”

Thatcher acknowledged that some people might think the bill doesn’t go far enough and some think it goes too far, but urged lawmakers not to “allow perfect to be the enemy of good.” He suggested that the Legislature could make further adjustments down the road.

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