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Utah lawmakers look to back data privacy, criminalize 'catfishing'

Posted at 5:09 PM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-27 19:49:54-05

SALT LAKE CITY  — Utah lawmakers have filed a series of bills that seek to bolster data privacy, including creating a statewide privacy officer to protect people's personal information and criminalizing efforts to "catfish."

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, has introduced House Bill 80, which creates an "affirmative defense" for companies in lawsuits over data breaches, provided they can prove that they maintain up-to-date data security.

"It doesn’t give them immunity and it doesn’t release them from liability especially if they’re negligent," he said in an interview with FOX 13.

Like many people, Rep. Brooks has gotten emails that tell him his personal information was been compromised in a data breach. He's one of many lawmakers advancing bills dealing with rapid advancements in tech that intrude on privacy.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, has introduced a bill that would criminalize online impersonation "with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate and threaten another individual."

She said the issue was brought to her by a constituent who had been harassed online. Her bill doesn't criminalize anonymous, online accounts, but would go after those who impersonate someone for the purposes of perpetuating a fraud or harassing someone else.

Rep. Lisonbee said it is modeled after legislation that was adopted in Texas. That particular legislation cracked down on "catfishing," which is an online deception where someone creates a fake identity to defraud or abuse someone else.

Depending on the severity of it, Rep. Lisonbee's House Bill 239 escalates in criminal penalty.

"It can have really serious and harmful consequences in people’s lives," Rep. Lisonbee told FOX 13. "A lot of times people tend to hide behind the guise of social media and online anonymity and don’t really put the consequences of their actions together."

Other bills introduced in the legislature regulate the state's use of facial recognition technology, and prohibit law enforcement from doing "reverse keyword searches" (where you don't know the identity of the offender but look for search terms or geotagged queries) without a warrant.

One of the biggest bills introduced in the Utah State Legislature is in response to an issue FOX 13 first reported on in 2019 when it was revealed that Utah's Attorney General had contracts with Banjo. The Utah-based company would take social media posts, traffic camera data, 911 call information and other data as part of an artificial intelligence program to create a near real-time monitoring system.

The goal of Banjo was to alert law enforcement to an emerging threat. But Republicans and Democrats on Utah's Capitol Hill were alarmed. As more scrutiny was put on the company (some lawmakers called it "North Korea-esque" and "Big Brother") its state funding was cut as audits were ordered.

House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, has now introduced House Bill 243, which creates a statewide "privacy officer" to look at how state and local governments use some tech and whether or not people's personal information is protected.

"It’s looking at how state agencies and local agencies collect and store personal, private data. It’s your Social Security number, your address, personally identifiable info," he said.

Rep. Gibson, who has been a critic of Banjo, said it is partly in response to the controversy surrounding the company. But he told FOX 13 that while Banjo has largely gone away, other companies have moved in to fill the void that also concern him.

His pending legislation does not regulate the companies, but would put more scrutiny on any government contracts they may have and require policy or law changes.

"If privacy is being abused, it would go to that agency and say 'You’ve got to change that practice,'" he said.

Civil liberties groups have been largely supportive of the data privacy bills. Connor Boyack, the president of the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, said Rep. Gibson's bill is proactive instead of reactive to advances in technology that threaten privacy.

"Utah has seen one example after another about how we haven't quite gotten it right when it comes to privacy," he said. "This is a good step forward to make sure that we do."

Silicon Slopes Commons, the group that represents Utah's booming tech industry, said it was reviewing the bills to decide which ones it would support or oppose.

Because of his position in the legislature, Rep. Gibson's bill has strong odds of passage. But he argued it's good policy.

"This is bi-partisan," he told FOX 13. "On this particular issue? I think most people just want their private stuff private."