Lawmakers criticize Utah’s planned next-generation surveillance program as ‘North Korea-esque’ and ‘Big Brother’

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Signs in this 2009 file photo warn visitors at Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park the Salt Lake City Police Department has installed a video surveillance system in the park. The state is considering a far more sophisticated system that would have the capability of tracking people through such surveillance cameras, social media and more, though Utah's legislative leaders remain skeptical.

For $2.2 million a year, law enforcement representatives said Tuesday, Utah can build and run a real-time, next-generation surveillance apparatus that combines public social media posts, traffic cameras and other data sources to decrease police response times, keep interstate traffic flowing and save lives.

“It tells you where to look for the needle in the haystack,” said Ric Cantrell, chief of staff to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. “So it will shave hours down to minutes.”

But those plans were met with vocal skepticism by Utah legislative leaders, who worried the plans could be a step toward an Orwellian, “North Korea-esque” abuse of personal privacy by state government.

“In a way, we’re creating the NSA Utah,” said Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton.

Gibson, the House majority leader, shared his concerns during a meeting of the Executive Appropriations Committee.

The influential lawmaker said the creation of a live-time intelligence platform — a joint project by the attorney general’s office, Utah Department of Public Safety, and University of Utah relying on software by Banjo, a Utah-based company — is “a slippery slope” toward the routine surveillance of residents’ activities that is none of the government’s business.

“I just see us asking for $2.2 million a year to be Big Brother,” Gibson said, referring to the all-seeing dystopian regime of George Orwell’s “1984.”

Lawmakers appropriated $3.7 million toward the project earlier this year, with state agencies contracting with Banjo in July for development of the intelligence platform. But that funding was one-time, meaning the nascent apparatus will effectively grind to a halt without additional investment by the Legislature.

Jess Anderson, Utah’s commissioner of public safety, said that while the program has the capability to monitor Utahns’ social media — and other — activities in real time, the Banjo software strips that data of personally identifiable elements while pooling critical information related to law enforcement and public safety incidents.

“One of the things that gets people concerned, and rightly so, is the fact we’re watching everything,” Anderson said. “It’s just a tool for us to be able to respond quicker, to be able to gather that information and actually have it. As long as it is anonymized, there’s no threat to any sort of private information.”

Cantrell gave the example of a recent kidnapping simulation organized by the attorney general’s office in coordination with local law enforcement agencies. In the simulated exercise, officers were able to identify the location of a missing child in eight hours, he said, while a test of a live time intelligence program reached the same conclusions in 22 seconds.

“If we could find the information in 22 seconds and knock on the door in 4 minutes, we can rescue the child before there’s trauma, before there’s a murder,” Cantrell said. “That’s what brings tears to my eyes. That’s why I want to make a foray into this area.”

He said the data analyzed by the program are not of a type that typically require a warrant — like tweets or posts on Facebook — but are like puzzle pieces that a data-based algorithm is more equipped to fit together.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” Cantrell said. “We feel like Utah is the right place to develop this technology."

Other members of the appropriations committee questioned whether the program could lead to racial profiling, or the abuse of facial recognition software.

In July, The Washington Post and New York Times reported that Utah was among the states where driver license databases had been mined by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI, using facial recognition software, without the knowledge of motorists.

State officials denied the characterizations of those reports, while lawmakers and activists criticized the use of driver licenses databases for the purpose of immigration enforcement.

Anderson said Monday that Utah’s live-time intelligence program will not include a facial recognition element, but added that strict regulations are appropriate to ensure the platform is not abused in the future.

“We’re very concerned as well,” Anderson said, “but yet at the same time have great confidence in this tool to be used as a tool to increase our ability here in Utah on many fronts.”

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, noted that many Utahns voluntarily use smartphone apps that track their location — like maps and other driver-assistance programs — and create data that is potentially useful for law enforcement. But the original intent of the program could be lost or diminished as new people or new agendas take precedent.

“I think we’re all concerned about the potential of the future,” Adams said. “Today we have good people involved, and we have some checks and balances. But I think there is concern.”