Utah bill would limit how and when police can see your old location data

Nov 16, 2022, 6:54 PM | Updated: Nov 17, 2022, 5:39 am

SALT LAKE CITY — They may not know who you are at first, but police can take just a few steps to find out if your cell phone was near the scene of a crime they’re investigating.

A proposal limiting how much of this data law enforcers can collect – and requiring them to report how often they obtain it from Google or other tech companies – cleared an early hurdle at the Utah Capitol on Wednesday.

The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee voted unanimously to advance the measure focused on “geofencing warrants,” which allows police to access location data for anyone at a certain place and time.

After that, they can return to the company to figure out exactly who the phones belong to.

The measure strikes an important balance, said Jeff Gray with the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

“It’s designed to protect the innocent from overreach by law enforcement, while at the same time permitting law enforcement to carry out their legitimate investigative needs in solving crime,” Gray told the committee on Wednesday.

The KSL Investigators previously examined warrants signed by judges throughout the state and found police are obtaining approval to track down cell data to solve a wide variety of cases, from murder and assault to shoplifting.

The pending bill would place limits on which crimes authorities can use geofence warrants to solve. They’d be limited to felonies and certain misdemeanors that involve a risk of harm to others, destruction of protected wildlife or a pattern of criminal activity.

Advocates have raised alarm in recent years about potential privacy violations, saying a person may never know if their information is swept up by authorities.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, the Ogden Republican sponsoring the measure, wants to avoid that.

He wants the police to notify you if they used your data and to destroy records of your information after the case is closed.

His bill would also require Utah’s law enforcement agencies to turn in yearly updates to the state, providing details on how many of these warrants they’ve obtained. And if they don’t, they’d risk taking a financial hit: Under the measure, the state could withhold grants for agencies who don’t provide the numbers.

“Honestly, without the data follow-up, we don’t really know if that had the effect that we were envisioning from the beginning,” Wilcox said. “That’s why that’s such an important aspect.”

A version of the measure failed last year, but Wilcox said he’s confident his colleagues will approve it in the 2023 legislative session.

The bill has the support of the ACLU of Utah and the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute. No one spoke in opposition Wednesday.

The proposal advances to the House.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153, so we can get working for you.

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Utah bill would limit how and when police can see your old location data