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Lawmakers Abandon Bill Regulating Facial Recognition Software Over Concerns Of Inadequate Protection

Photo of the Utah state capitol building.
Brian Albers
Utah lawmakers on Wednesday dropped a bill that would have regulated facial recognition software used by the Utah Department of Public Safety, but they expect related legislation in the 2020 legislative session.

Draft legislation to regulate government use of facial recognition software was unveiled and subsequently abandoned Wednesday after some lawmakers worried it did not do enough to protect privacy.

The issue erupted in July when a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology revealed the Utah Department of Public Safety ran more than 1,000 searches through the state driver’s license database at the request of federal law enforcement agencies. During many of the searches, images of criminal suspects were run through the database, which contains millions of photos of Utahns, in order to find a potential match.

DPS later admitted that it also runs every new driver’s license photo — including images of minors — through the database in order to prevent fraud.

But none of that is an issue for Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City.

“I want to make sure that someone is not getting a fake ID,” Thatcher said. “So I personally have no problem with my face being searched 2,000 times a day to ensure that we’re not supporting people in identity theft and identity fraud.” 

A draft bill he spearheaded would have required the Driver’s License Division to disclose the searches on new license applications, but would not have limited those searches in any way.

But Thatcher was largely focused on regulating new technology he said is “coming up quick” and could be used in surveillance. His bill would have prohibited the use of facial recognition systems to conduct surveillance in public spaces without a warrant. A similar bill was recently introduced by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Chris Coons, D-DE, at the federal level.

But Utah lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had lingering concerns about the regular searches in the driver’s license database and whether they violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said running photos of criminal suspects through the database is “akin to pulling over every driver when you got a tip that one car in this area has some illegal contraband in it, so you subject everyone to this search.”

Thatcher disagreed, saying he believes the Fourth Amendment protects against physical interactions with law enforcement such as interrogations and blood draws, not using a government-issued ID in a database search.

“When someone is pulled over, they are physically detained. Their right of movement has been restricted,” he said. “The idea that we’re stopping every single Utahn 2,000 times a day – to me, that doesn’t connect.”

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said most committee members were concerned with the use of the database to search for matches of criminal suspects.

“We’re basically taking a driver’s license, which is not a criminal proceeding, not a criminal license, and you’re allowing it to be used in searches for criminal issues, and that’s a Fourth Amendment issue,” he said.

Brammer suggested an amendment requiring a warrant in searches requested by law enforcement, an idea Thatcher shot down.

When it appeared the bill would not get enough support to pass, the committee adjourned without voting on it. Afterward, Thatcher said he is not interested in making any changes to the legislation and will abandon it, though he expects a different lawmaker will take up the issue in the 2020 legislative session. 

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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