Utah Think Tank Pushes for New Layer of Surveillance Oversight

A proposal from a Utah think-tank suggests that the state create a first-of-its-kind privacy oversight committee and public officer to evaluate the ways the government uses surveillance technology.

by / May 22, 2020
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A string of privacy scandals in Utah is pushing some to ask whether state government needs another layer of checks and balances when it comes to the surveillance technology it uses. 

The Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank headquartered in Utah, recently published a proposal called the Personal Privacy Act, which, among other things, suggests the creation of a privacy oversight committee within the state auditor's office. That committee would be staffed by privacy experts and researchers and would be responsible for vetting current and new police technologies that the state is considering implementing. 

The proposal also suggests the creation of a new privacy officer, who would also work out of the auditor's office, and would be responsible for overseeing efforts to inventory and evaluate the necessity and invasive potential of such technologies. This new position wouldn't replace Utah's current privacy officer position that operates out of the Department of Technology Services, it should be noted. 

While not technically a bill in the state's legislature, the Libertas proposal lays out a policy framework for legislation that could shake up the way that government uses security tech. 

Over the past year or so, Utah has seen a number of controversial incidents involving surveillance: most recently, the Attorney General Office's controversial relationship with real-time surveillance company Banjo was terminated after the CEO's past KKK affiliation came to light. Similarly, the revelation that the state had, unbeknownst to the public, shared license plate information with federal agencies like ICE and the FBI also concerned some state residents.  

"It's been alarming to see all the different ways government has been leveraging all these different kinds of technologies," said James Czerniawski, policy analyst at Libertas. At this point, there is an ever-growing glut of devices that governments can tap into for the purposes of policing. "DNA databases, facial recognition technology, biometrics, any kind of location data, the Banjo situation; it's all [being used for] some form of government surveillance in one form or another," he said. 

"A lot of the things they're being used for are good initiatives — solving cold cases, catching criminals — many of these are good in their own right. At the same time, they shouldn't be used at the expense of people's rights," Czerniawski offered.  

Czerniawski said he has hopes that the Libertas proposal can materialize into a bill that lawmakers want to support. A policy framework that would create a new check on government power is an appealing idea, he said. 

"Basically we view this privacy proposal as a springboard," he said, explaining that it would likely be a two year process to try to translate this current blueprint into actual policy. 

The office of Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes, which has been at the center of much of the privacy controversies, published a statement regarding the Libertas proposal, expressing cautious support while noting that the concept merited "deeper discussion and review." 

“As Utah Attorney General, an essential part of my job is protecting the privacy and liberties of Utahns," Reyes said. "As technology advances, criminals are exploiting more devious/despicable ways to harm Utahns, whether it’s defrauding us out of our hard earned savings, preying upon our children online, cyberbullying them into suicide or selling them drugs and fruity vaping flavors." 

"To combat this cyberwarfare by criminals, we need to stay a step ahead with technology without violating personal privacy. Public safety should not come at the cost of liberty," the statement went on. "Because it is critical that we balance privacy with the need to protect Utahns, I support the Privacy Protection Act in concept, though final legislation merits deeper discussion and review." 

Lucas Ropek Staff Writer

Lucas Ropek is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and writer in Massachusetts and New York. He received his Bachelor's degree in English from Kenyon College in Ohio. He lives in Northern California.

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