Michael McGrady: Bill to protect Utah’s youth online comes with clear digital privacy risks

Making social media companies collect personal data risks a privacy nightmare

(Richard Drew | AP photo) The logo for Twitter appears above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Nov. 29, 2021.

Utah Senate Bill 152 is a proposal that would mandate parental consent for minors under the age of 18 years to have access to major social media networks, like TikTok and Instagram. Sen. Mike McKell, the brother-in-law to Gov. Spencer Cox, has managed to see a substitute version of the bill advanced in lieu of the original version that would’ve included a mandate that a government identification is required to sign up a minor for a social media account.

The current version of SB152 would grant the Utah Division of Consumer Protection to promulgate a state-sponsored age verification system through administrative rule making. This substitute was adopted by the Senate to allow social media companies and other stakeholders to submit comments on how the state should handle age verification if SB152 were to become law.

Additionally, the bill also intends to block targeted advertising aimed at youth by blocking advertisers from accessing data dealing with the interests and consumer behaviors of minors allowed to join social media sites.

While this substitution grants the opportunity for platforms to have their input, there is a harmful belief behind McKell’s bill that government-mandated verification could serve as a measure to protect the privacy rights of minors.

Even though the Utah Administrative Rulemaking Act gives social media companies the right to provide input, the Division of Consumer Protection could choose to implement an age verification regulatory regime that only includes a small portion of what the industry would recommend. The governor’s administration could additionally move to intervene by asking the division to adopt an age verification regime that conflicts with other state and federal laws and regulations governing data protection for minors.

There is a probable chance that the division will care to adopt recommendations from partisan and religious groups who are ideologically opposed to much of how social media networks operate and conduct business.

The other elephant in the room is quite easy to identify. Even if the best possible compromise is reached during the rule-making process, the mandate requiring age verification to access the most popular mainstream social media websites could actually lead to a potential data security nightmare. Requiring social media companies to collect this type of sensitive information could increase identity theft from a potential data breach.

A potential data breach could also make the recovery process more complicated, given that the age verification data provided by a parent and legal guardian – regardless of it being an identification or a credit card number – could be tied to the minor’s social media account. Age verification platforms are designed to confirm the age of users, but in a means that retains as little information as possible.

Experts in the space of formulating privacy legislation (ostensibly how SB152 is presented) recommend that minimizing the amount of data is led by only collecting information that platforms require at a minimum to ensure the full and successful operation of a particular service, app, or internet function.

I believe Senate Bill 152 is poised to become law, unfortunately. Consumer protection regulators in Utah must seriously consider the best possible data privacy assurances for the bill’s lifespan as a new state statute.

The best course of action at this juncture would be for Gov. Spencer Cox to simply veto the bill once it completely passes through the Utah Legislature. Since a veto is likely out of the question, lawmakers and regulators must work hard to lessen the potential damage and fall out from a catastrophic data breach. The end goal should be to see SB152 reviewed by a state or federal court for potential constitutional violations.

Michael McGrady

Michael McGrady, Monument, Colorado, is a journalist, policy researcher and commentator. He covers the adult entertainment industry, consumer tech issues and civil liberties online across the United States and the world.