Video of Monday’s drone flyover in Montpelier. Courtesy ACLU-VT
A drone was flown over the Vermont Statehouse on Tuesday to prove a point: No one in the state is immune to law enforcement surveillance.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont released a 20-page report, titled “Surveillance on the Northern Border,” highlighting information-collection programs in the state during a news conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier.
The report is a warning that current law enforcement practices are invading personal privacy and transforming Vermont into a “surveillance society,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU-VT.
“Over the last 12 years, Vermont has been transformed into a state where we’re being watched,” Gilbert said.
Surveillance tools being used in Vermont include automated license plate readers, facial recognition software, drones (remote-operated aerial vehicles carrying cameras), cellphone tracking systems and fusion centers, which are hubs to share information between local, state and federal law enforcement.
Next year, in the second half of the legislative biennium, Gilbert will urge lawmakers to pass legislation regulating the collection of personal information and the use of surveillance tools.
“I think the Legislature is going to have to grapple with how there can be better oversight, certainly at the state level,” he said. “It might just be reporting every time new federal money from the Homeland Security comes in and what that money is planned to be used for.”
The report says the Department of Homeland Security has awarded state and local law enforcement agencies more than $100 million for surveillance technology used to monitor the border with Canada. However, Gilbert said it is difficult to know how these tools are used because there is inadequate budgetary oversight monitoring the federal money.
Lawmakers will consider legislation to regulate the use of drones in the state. H.540 and S.196 prohibit the use of facial recognition technology on the data that a drone collects. Both were last referred to committees.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who sponsored the House “Drone Bill,” said while drones might not be visible in Vermont’s skies today, it is not too soon begin discussing the issue.
“I think it’s really nice once in a while to get ahead of the issue,” Donahue said. “We know that it is something that is becoming an issue.”
She said the bill will not likely be a priority this January, but she said it is still valuable to begin discussing the topic.
Donahue said any policy that regulates the use of surveillance technology must balance whether the valid intent of the technology justifies an intrusion on privacy.
Gilbert said he will encourage lawmakers to draft legislation increasing social media and electronic privacy. For example, this might require that those seeking personal information, such as employers or local law enforcement, would be required to obtain a warrant.
He said this technology is abused when law enforcement agencies collect information, such as a facial recognition print, without a warrant.
Before the Legislature adjourned this spring, lawmakers formed a committee to study social media privacy for employees and job candidates. The central issue raised earlier this year was whether businesses could force people to turn over their social media passwords, as a condition of employment or otherwise.
Act 69 regulating automated license plate recognition technology, which was signed into law June 4, limits the length of time that license plate information can be retained to 18 months.
These surveillance tools were designed to respond to the national security threat of terrorism after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Gilbert said. While these tools might have been useful, improper oversight of their use has led to the violation of personal privacy, he said.
As part of this heightened security, Gilbert said, the Department of Homeland Security has partnered with local law enforcement in its counterterrorism mission.
The report says the U.S. Border Patrol runs routine traffic stops along I-91, local police departments use automated license plate readers, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles has facial recognition software, Customs and Border Protection service might use drones along the Vermont-Canada border, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office has obtained cellphone tracking data and the Vermont State Police operate a fusion center.
The ACLU-VT will host a conference Oct. 30 in Montpelier on the issue. William M. Arkin, a journalist who specializes in the subject of national security, will be the event’s keynote speaker.