SALT LAKE CITY — Utah public safety officials denied reports this week that the state allows U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to mine Utahns' driver's license photos using facial recognition technology.
But the state Department of Public Safety allows law enforcement, including federal agencies such as ICE, access to residents' driver's license and driving privilege card information, including photos.
"I think those policies are really loose," Salt Lake immigration attorney Aaron Tarin said. "I don't think DPS even has a full handle on how much data the feds are getting from them."
In 2017, Tarin noticed what he described as an "undeniable statistical pattern" of ICE agents detaining people after they renewed their state-issued driving privilege cards.
Tarin, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and now-retired Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, met with now-retired Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires and deputy commissioner Nannette Rolfe to talk about the issue.
The public safety department put out a statement after the meeting saying detailed discussions determined that there had been no apparent misuse of the Utah Criminal Justice Information System.
But the statement went on to say that "all law enforcement functioning within the state of Utah, to include federal law enforcement, have access to the Utah Criminal Justice Information System."
Documents obtained by Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, and first reported on the Washington Post last weekend, revealed that ICE and the FBI have searched state driver’s license databases, turning them into a “facial-recognition gold mine,” scanning through millions of Americans' photographs without their consent or knowledge.
In at least three states that offer drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants, ICE officials have requested to electronically analyze license photos, according to the documents. At least two of those states, Utah and Vermont, complied, searching their photos for matches, those records show.
Public safety spokeswoman Marissa Cote said Monday that the Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center, which runs the state's facial recognition system, received 49 search requests from ICE between October 2015 and November 2017. About 10 percent of them resulted in a positive hit, according to the department.
Federal agencies or agents don't have access to the database and any request for a facial recognition search must be tied to a criminal investigation, she said.
Cote said Thursday that Utah Statewide Information and Analysis Center and Utah Criminal Justice Information System are different. The analysis center is a division of the public safety department that runs the state's facial recognition system, she said.
The criminal justice information system is a portal to other databases that all law enforcement has access to, but does not have facial recognition technology and isn't capable of comparing photos, she said. Police, she said, use it to confirm names, dates of birth and addresses of people they stop.
But there is nothing to prevent ICE or the FBI from extracting information to run through its own facial recognition or criminal identification software.
"I can't really speculate what they're doing with that, but a log is kept," Cote said. "There are checks and balances to ensure that it is being properly used."
However, electronic records within the system "do not distinguish whether a person is issued a driving privilege card or a regular driver's license," according to the 2017 public safety department statement.
Tarin told the Deseret News after that 2017 meeting that "Squires confirmed that ICE does in fact have access to that database, which includes the addresses and renewal dates, which would explain the pattern we're seeing in our systems where people are getting picked up by ICE at much higher rates within 90 days of their birthday."
"It's obvious it's happening still — more now," Tarin said Thursday.
Cote said the public safety department wouldn't have any way to confirm that.
"I think that would be a question for ICE whether that's something they're doing, but it is another tool for them to use," she said. "The Utah Criminal Justice Information System is a law enforcement tool."
As a result of the pattern Tarin said he sees, undocumented immigrants and even legal permanent residents — on advice from immigration lawyers — are not getting driver's licenses, meaning they're driving Utah roads without insurance.
"We're essentially creating a situation where we're encouraging people to break the law," he said.
Utah has issued driving privilege cards for more than a decade under legislation passed by state lawmakers. Backers said the driving privilege card provides a legal means for people who are unauthorized to be in the United States to drive and requires them to insure their vehicles.
Migrants families in Utah and across the country are already on edge in anticipation of the Trump administration's plan to arrest thousands of people who have deportation orders, possibly starting Sunday.
The New York Times reported that the raids are expected to take place in at least 10 cities over multiple days and will include "collateral" deportations, in which "authorities might detain immigrants who happened to be on the scene, even though they were not targets of the raids."
Tarin said it's a "scary thing" for government to have photos not just of undocumented immigrants but of American citizens who could be subject to facial recognition searches without their knowledge.20 comments on this story
"The implications here in terms of privacy are tremendous," he said, adding he doesn't know how the law will react to rapid technological advances.
Tarin said lawmakers should summon public safety department administrators to the Capitol to "grill" them on how the databases are being used.
On Tuesday, Republican and Democratic Utah House and Senate leaders said they want to learn more about the department's efforts to ensure residents' personal data is protected from misuse by any agency. It tasked a legislative committee with monitoring the situation and holding hearings if necessary.