Courts & Corrections

Surveillance technology needs better regulation, Vermont ACLU says

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.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU-VT, takes a photo of a drone that flew over the Statehouse as part of the organization's presentation of a report on surveillance programs in the state on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU-VT, takes a photo of a drone that flew over the Statehouse as part of the organization’s presentation of a report on surveillance programs in the state on Tuesday. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

“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.

A drone that flew over the Statehouse in Montpelier as part of the ACLU-VT’s presentation of their report on information-gathering programs in the Vermont on Tuesday. Photo by Kate Robinson/VTDigger
A drone that flew over the Statehouse in Montpelier as part of the ACLU-VT’s presentation of their report on information-gathering programs in the Vermont on Tuesday. Photo by Kate Robinson/VTDigger

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John Herrick

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  • Matt Fisken

    hmm…. no mention of smart meters.

    People often say, “I have nothing to hide so I don’t care if I’m surveilled.” It is worth considering how new technology is invasive of our physical bodies too.

    While I have no idea about the usefulness of the data collected by these advanced meters for the average investigation, I do know that the wireless models deployed in the past 2 years on about 3/4 of Vermont homes effectively invade our bodies with RF radiation, causing stress and illness.

    You can see how this happens in this video, which is a short excerpt of the recently released film Take Back Your Power:

    • Pam Ladds

      And while we worry about Smart Meters and all the rest of the surveillance “stuff” check out your Smart Phone. And ask yourself who exactly it is working for??

  • Angela Bennett

    RE: Cameras installed to take pictures of license plates

    Is there a complete list of the exact location of each and every camera available to the public?

  • Robert Appel

    A number of police departments have procured ALPRs presumably with federal funds. They are mounted on the trunks of cruisers and are hard to miss. Check with your local department to see if it has purchased these immense data collection devices which are roving and running any time the cruiser is in our communities. Officers make stops if the APLR says that the vehicle is not registered, or the owner (whether or not she is the driver at the time of the scan) is wanted for some The data collection is stored by agencies for 18 months, a limited imposed by the VT Legislature last year (down from the then 3 years retention policy). As long as that data is stored, police agencies can determine the location at any given time of any plate (and vehicle to which it is attached) read by these devices. Most states reportedly dump the data after 30 days, not 18 months. Makes you stop, think and perhaps shudder that big brother has truly arrived here in good ol’ Vermont.

  • Angela Bennett

    Big brother has been here in Vermont for some time.

    What I really want to know is if a Vermont State Agency has a complete list of every camera, no matter where it is mounted, whether it be on a vehicle or on a traffic light or other place where one might not notice it.

    Is there a list? If so, who has the list? And, is it available to the public? If not, why not?

    Also, who oversees the “dumping” of this information after 18 months? How do we know that it is, in fact, dumped at all?

  • Robert Appel

    Good questions, Angela, to which I know of no answers. Perhaps US Dept of Homeland Security knows, but good luck getting that info.

    • kevin lawrence

      Loved the video of the drone looking in the Pavilion of the Governor’s office.

      The ACLU is way ahead on this issue. I joined them this year to keep abreast of the NSA.

  • Angela Bennett

    Questions for an investigative reporter and/or the ACLU Vermont. The citizens of the State of Vermont have a right to this information, including reasonable access. Why not post all information related to these cameras/photographs online?

    Any suggestions, other than Homeland Security, as to where to follow up?