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Opinion: When conspiracy theories control the Legislature

Crowds of people with misinformation seem to be getting their way on Utah’s Capitol Hill. That’s not good for government

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Crowd members cheer after SB88 was held after residents showed up to express feelings.

Crowd members cheer after SB88 was held because of spirited people who opposed a digital driver’s license program. Members of the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee abruptly adjourned rather than consider the bill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What does the biblical “mark of the beast” have to do with a bill that would have expanded Utah’s voluntary digital driver’s license program?

For that matter, what does this bill have to do with the United Nations, and what has a workers’ compensation bill got to do with tyranny against the unvaccinated, or a ranked-choice voting bill to do with the end of democracy?

Utah lawmakers suddenly find themselves playing a new game: Guess which bill will catch the attention of conspiracy theorists.

That game became more serious recently when those who see danger in the shadows, egged on by internet sources, scored some wins. 

Lawmakers passed the workers’ compensation bill, but they scuttled the digital driver license bill, SB88, when a House committee voted to adjourn in front of a spirited crowd rather than consider it further (a Senate committee had passed it unanimously). 

Then, a committee considering the ranked-choice voting bill, HB178, suddenly removed it from an agenda, likely for similar reasons. 

Conspiracy theories and impassioned crowds are one thing. Folding in the face of them is quite another. 

I’ve sat through tax hike hearings in which local governments have withstood hours of angry finger pointing, only to still vote “yes” in the face of boos. Sometimes elected officials have to do what they think is right, regardless of the people staring them down in a meeting.

State lawmakers are sending a dangerous message to anyone seeking a roadmap for defeating a bill.

The digital license bill offers an interesting case study for the power of impassioned crowds who attend committee meetings.

The sponsor of the bill,Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, told me he’s glad to see people becoming involved and passionate about legislative issues. “I don’t regret people coming out and petitioning their government,” he said. “They really can move the Legislature.”

But it’s impossible to ignore the frustration in his voice when he talks about his bill.

A digital license would allow users to generate a QR code on their smartphones for use by a police officer or a bartender or anyone else who requires identification. The app itself wouldn’t store any personal information. It would only generate a QR code that gathered information from a database. 

The user decides what information gets shared in the code. A liquor store clerk would receive only an age verification. A police officer would receive your name and verification of valid driving privileges. 

If someone steals your traditional driver’s license, that person obtains a lot of information that can help him or her commit identity theft. Steal a phone with an app and you won’t get anything unless you can access the app using the owner’s identity.

“Arguing against this actually makes your data less secure,” Fillmore said.

To be sure, digital identification has some credible detractors. The ACLU, for instance, has issued a report expressing concerns, noting that, “a poorly constructed digital identity system could be a privacy nightmare.” 

The report says “digital IDs could also enable the centralized tracking of every place … that we present our ID.” It recommends safeguards to protect against abuses.

Fillmore said his version covers all of these concerns, the result of a three-year pilot project in Utah that has refined the system.

In any event, it would be nice to have a civil discussion about those issues, not one tinged with apocalyptic overtones.

Writing for The Washington Post, reporter Jose A. Del Real disputes the notion that we are living in a post-truth society. There is no scientific evidence that more people today believe in conspiracies and deeply hidden truths than in the past — the assassination of John F. Kennedy offers a prime example. What has changed, however, is that we now have the internet.

“Today, it is harder to avoid other people’s delusions, and yet also easier to seclude ourselves away online with people who share our own,” he wrote. “It is possible to do it all relatively anonymously.”

In the committee hearing for SB88, people spoke about digital licenses taking away their right to travel freely. They spoke about a slippery slope down the road to tyranny. One woman said people in Switzerland are now getting microchips implanted under their skin, which she likened to the “mark of the beast” in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

I looked that one up. It’s actually in Sweden, not Switzerland, and it involves a private company called Epicenter that offers to implant chips in hands to act as vaccine passports. The implants are voluntary and easily removable.

Still, it is real, just as smartphones and their privacy risks are real. Having a rational discussion about the ethics of technology would be a good thing. Letting people kill legislation because they are emphatic about their version of the truth is, decidedly, not.