Utah officials deny reports of wholesale ICE and FBI facial recognition sweeps through state driver license and driving privilege card databases

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Immigration and Customs Enforcement badge. The Utah Department of Public Safety says it sometimes searches for ICE for suspected criminals through databases of photo of unauthorized immigrants taken for driving privilege cards here — but denies allowing any widespread fishing expeditions through the data.

Utah officials said Monday they do not allow immigration officials to conduct fishing expeditions using facial recognition technology to mine databases of photos of undocumented immigrants taken for driving privilege cards.

They also denied reports that the state allows wholesale facial recognition searches through its driver license photos for other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

“That might happen in other states. But that did not happen in Utah, and it still does not happen in Utah,” said Marissa Cote, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

The Washington Post and The New York Times reported over the weekend that documents show Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI mined driver license databases in many states — including Utah — using facial recognition technology, analyzing millions of motorists’ photos without their knowledge.

The Post said searches were offered not just to help identify criminal suspects but also to detect possible witnesses, victims, bodies, innocent bystanders and other people not charged with crimes.

Cote said the Utah does conduct limited facial recognition searches of its driver photo database — both of citizens and noncitizens — at the request of outside agencies including ICE for suspected criminals, one individual at a time.

ICE made 49 such requests from 2015-2017, Cote said, and a few of the people found eventually were convicted of drug crimes or identity- and credit-card theft.

“They were criminal cases,” not simple deportation cases, she said. “We’ll make sure that Utah’s facial recognition system is used for criminal cases and not against law-abiding Utahns.”

But some legislators and activists worry the latest controversy will lead more undocumented immigrants to avoid obtaining driving privilege cards — and some question the legality of state actions. The state has long promised that data gathered for the cards would not be used to aid deportations — and is designed simply to allow immigrants to buy insurance and drive legally.

“It could undermine the program,” said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who sponsored legislation that created it.

“It will just add to fear in the immigrant community,” said longtime Latina activist Josie Valdez. “It will be another deterrent to safety” and lead to more unlicensed, uninsured motorists.

Utah’s database was the subject of nearly 2,000 facial-recognition searches from outside law enforcement agencies between 2015 and 2017, The Post reported — adding about half were from federal agencies including ICE.

One document from Utah’s Statewide Information and Analysis Center coached officers on how to make facial-recognition requests; offered four tips for better facial photographs (“lighting, distance, angle, eyes”); and said the database included “over 5 million Utah driver’s license & state identification card photos.”

The Times quoted Harrison Rudolph, an associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, which obtained the documents, saying that the practice “is a scandal.”

“States have never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver’s license databases using facial recognition to look for folks,” he said. “These states have never told undocumented people that when they apply for a driver’s license, they are also turning over their face to ICE. That is a huge bait and switch.”

The office of Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statement saying he and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox were “very concerned by the initial reports” but were assured by the Department of Public Safety that it shares select data “only in connection with specific, singular criminal cases” — not big fishing expeditions.

It added, “Gov. Herbert believes in respecting the privacy of Utah residents and he is committed to ensuring that Utah’s facial recognition system will only be used for law enforcement purposes and never against law-abiding Utahns.”

DPS spokeswoman Cote said no outside fishing expeditions are allowed into the state driver photo database, and no outside agency is given direct access. State officials do searches on behalf of others but only when a criminal case number is provided.

“It has to be for a specific individual tied to a criminal investigation,” she said. “We don’t provide batches of information or anything like that. Federal agencies do not have access to our state database.”

She said law-abiding undocumented immigrants need not worry that their data is being given to ICE.

Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, which works with immigrants, said the immigrant community has doubts about that. He expects more will now avoid the driving privilege card, although his group still recommends that they still obtain them and drive legally.

He said they knew for years some driving card information was shared with ICE, “but we were told it was mostly for people accused of or convicted of felonies. But what we have seen on the ground is people getting picked up for a DUI that occurred maybe 20 years ago” and used to help deport them. “It does make us wonder how our information is protected.”

Rep. Mark Archuleta Wheatley, D-Murray, speaking for the Utah Hispanic Legislative Caucus, which he heads, questions whether state officials are overstepping bounds.

“No one registers for a driver’s license or state identification card with the belief that this information could be used against them," he said. “This is a potential breach of trust that should concern every single Utah citizen. In addition, this story has already exacerbated fears within our immigrant and nonwhite communities.”

Bramble, the Republican senator who helped create the driving privilege card, said its purpose was to curb the problem that many undocumented immigrants failed to obtain insurance because they lacked a driver license — but drove anyway. He said the program helped improve safety but worked only because promises were made that information obtained for the cards would not be turned over to ICE.

Violating that trust could ruin the program and make roads more dangerous, he warned. Still, he favors allowing limited use of information to help find murderers or other dangerous felons. “It’s a balancing act," he said, “between capturing dangerous felons and keeping the highways safe.” He said the real solution is to fix the immigration system.

Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he is also concerned about searches of U.S. citizens’ photos in the driver database. “We’re outrunning ourselves in terms of the technology undermining our civil liberties,” and said lawmakers should address it.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, added, “I really have great concern that this has never been shared with us before and the Legislature hasn’t approved it." She also called for lawmakers to review it.

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, which promotes individual rights, said, “We don’t believe the Legislature’s intent was to create this massive database that the federal government could use at its discretion to go fishing for immigrants.”

He said if broad fishing expeditions are occurring as described in national stories, they “are in our view unconstitutional and un-American,” and any searches would need to be narrowly defined.