Lawmakers introduce bill to strike balance between personal rights, public safety with facial recognition technology

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ST. GEORGE — A bill introduced to the Legislature this year aims to strike a balance between the government’s use of facial recognition technology and personal privacy rights by regulating its use across Utah.

L-R: Utah Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City and Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George introduce SB 0034 to limit use of facial recognition technology, location and dates unspecified | Photos courtesy of Daniel Thatcher and Travis Seegmiller, St. George News

Facial recognition technology is one of several biometric technologies employed by law enforcement agencies and can be instrumental in generating investigative leads, identifying victims of crimes, helping to sort faces in photos that are part of forensic evidence and even assisting in finding missing persons or verifying the identity of inmates before they are released from prison.

Because of its widespread application, the use of facial recognition and other image-capturing technologies has received increased attention from policymakers and the public – including Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who introduced SB 0034, which outlines new guidelines for using facial recognition technology by law enforcement and government agencies – the first bill of its kind in Utah.

Thatcher told St. George News that currently, “there is absolutely nothing in our state code that regulates the use of facial recognition technology.”

He went on to say the Utah Department of Public Safety implemented guidelines to govern the use of facial recognition last year, but those were internal guidelines that officers and other law enforcement personnel working within that agency are expected to follow.

On a state level, Thatcher said, the application facial recognition technology is completely unregulated and its use is unrestricted – “and that’s a problem.”

He said there are two sides to this issue. On the one hand, he said, there are those who believe the risk of losing personal rights and privacy is too high so the technology should never be used. On the other side, there are those who believe the technology is an invaluable tool for law enforcement and should be made available for any investigation or crime, he said.

Finding a balance between these two sides took more than two years, he said, and included many meetings with different law enforcement agencies and civil rights groups. Through this, they found a middle ground in which the technology could be regulated in such a way that it remained a tool for law enforcement, while simultaneously preserving a level of personal privacy, he said.

Stock image | Photo by Rosadu/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

To that end, the bill, if passed, would require law enforcement to submit a written request for a facial recognition comparison that includes a statement of the specific crime they’re investigating and that a factual basis exists to support a “fair probability” the person is connected with the crime.

Further, it would also prohibit a government entity from using a facial recognition system on an image database.

Face recognition technology is a potent, practical application of artificial intelligence and is rapidly advancing and widely deployed. And thanks to social media, there is a massive quantity of facial images available, according to the National Institute of Justice.

In fact, Facebook alone had nearly 2.4 billion monthly active users as of March 2019, the Institute states, which also serves as a free public supply of  “massive image datasets.”

Combined with advances in both learning algorithms that mimic the human brain and pattern-recognition capabilities, an essential component in facial recognition, there are arguable benefits to facial recognition technology. But troubling concerns are raised with its present unregulated use that evolve around the accuracy of the technology itself, as well as the collection of images and questions about the security of the databases used to store those images.

One of the issues lawmakers hope to address with this bill is about privacy concerns for the individual, as the lack of proper safeguards take away the control from an individual over their own identity and give it to a third party – primarily law enforcement.

SB-034, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, passed the Government Operations Interim Committee in a unanimous vote and moved to the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee Feb. 4.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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