SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (March 22, 2021) – Last week, Utah  Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill that creates a process to review state and local surveillance technology and to halt the use of surveillance tech that doesn’t meet acceptable standards. The law will create an important layer of transparency and oversight for surveillance programs in the state and push back against the growing federal surveillance state.

Rep. Francis Gibson (R) introduced House Bill 243 (HB243) on Jan. 26. The legislation creates the position of “state privacy officer” along with the Personal Privacy Oversight Committee within the office of the state auditor. The committee will have the authority to review government use of surveillance technology and require state or city agencies to terminate the use of such technology if they fail to meet minimum acceptable standards. This will be subject to a legislative override.

The committee will be responsible for developing guiding standards for best practices with respect to government privacy policy, technology uses related to personal privacy, and data security. This information will be available to the public creating an environment of transparency around surveillance tech.

On Feb. 26, the House passed HB243 by a 69-0 vote. The Senate passed the measure 26-0 with some technical amendments on March, 4 and the House concurred with the changes the same day. With Cox’s signature, the law goes into effect May 5.

Creating a framework of oversight and transparency around surveillance technology and programs is a crucial step toward protecting privacy. Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

The enactment of HB243 creates a structure to ensure police departments are following guidelines to protect privacy, limiting data sharing, and that the public is aware of what type of surveillance tech government agencies operate. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best antiseptic.

Impact on Federal Programs

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Mike Maharrey

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