Ronald Mortensen: Protecting Utahns’ privacy should be a major campaign issue

(screengrab from Banjo company website) Park City-based Banjo has a contract with the state of Utah to create a live-time surveillance system to help law enforcement and other entities respond to situations faster. Some experts worry about privacy implications.

Over the years, the state of Utah and its political subdivisions have shown a callous disregard for the right to privacy of Utahns. They have collected Utahn’s personal identifying, medical and other highly sensitive information, sold it, given it away and allowed it to be hacked.

Attorney General Sean Reyes’ $20.8 million contract with Banjo to build a massive, real-time surveillance system is a recent example of the disregard elected officials have for Utahn’s right to privacy. Banjo reportedly listens to 911 calls throughout the state, monitors traffic and other cameras, the location of police cars, Utahns’ social media and more.

Rather than questioning the privacy issues raised by Banjo, cities, counties, police departments and the University of Utah embraced it with open arms. Of course, none of these entities ever informed the public of what they were doing.

The use of intrusive technology without public notice is all the more disconcerting because, under the Herbert/Cox administration, the state has a dismal record when it comes to protecting information that it collects on its citizens. In fact, it has lost, sold or given away the personal identifying information of virtually every Utah.

The state sells the entire voter database with the personal information of roughly 1.5 million Utahns for $1,050 and it is then posted to the internet by one of the purchasers.

The state has given the highly sensitive personal identifying information of every Utah driver away for medical research purposes without informing the license holders. This includes social security numbers, mothers’ maiden names, dates and places of birth, addresses, physical characteristics, etc.

The state has allowed federal law enforcement agencies to access drivers license photos for facial recognition purposes.

The Utah Department of Health shares sensitive personal and medical information with academicians for research purposes.

Governmental entities provide marriage licenses, birth certificates, cancer records, and vaccination records to researchers and others without obtaining the consent of the person whose records are being released.

County officials sell access to private property ownership records.

Now, private entities that the state contracts with are asking people to give them their sensitive personal information, the right to track their every movement as well as to collect their nasal fluids and blood for coronavirus testing without fully disclosing how this information will be used, who will own and maintain it, who it will be shared with and how it will be protected.

In the past two years, many current legislators have voted for bills that release health information with identifiable personal information, taken away the right of voters to make their voter registration records private and made drivers license information available to a wide range of entities. Governor Herbert has signed all of these bills without any pushback from his Lt. Governor, Spencer Cox.

Past experience has shown that once government establishes large databases of personal information, others immediately start trying to get elected officials to grant them access to that information without first notifying or obtaining the authorization of the person whose data they are seeking. And they all too often succeed.

Given the massive failure of current and past office holders’ to protect the information that state and local governments collect on each of us, all candidates running for office in 2020 should address these privacy issues and tell us exactly how they will protect the highly sensitive information that governments at all levels collect and hold on each of us. After all, when elected officials show less concern for our right to privacy than Google and Facebook, something needs to change.

Ronald Mortensen

Ronald Mortensen, Ph.D., Bountiful, has written extensively on privacy issues and helped develop legislation that gives Utahns control over the information they give the state.