VERMONT- As revelations about the domestic and global reach of the National Security Agency’s data collecting and monitoring programs continue to arise, Vermonters may wonder how, or why it affects them. In a state such as Vermont, where an amalgamate of values blends with a rural, old-school way of life, is there a possibility that residents are included in domestic surveillance? According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, the answer is yes.
The use of unarmed drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders was approved in 2005 to monitor the activity of those entering and leaving the country. Vermont’s northern border is approximately 90 miles long with more than 90% of the state’s population living within 100 miles of the international boundary with Canada. This means that over 90% of the population is under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security, which claims authority within 100 miles of international boundaries, and has the authority to set up buffer zones within that zone. One such checkpoint used to exist in White River Junction, and at such spots, DHS agents are allowed to question travelers and perform searches on vehicles without suspicion of a crime. There have also been plans developed to install checkpoints on all six interstates in New England that run north to south.
According to the VTACLU’s report, the profile of the average Vermonter can be collected using simple technology we come across in our day-to-day lives. Where a Vermonter goes, what they buy, and even where their child is educated can be compiled and stored in what is known as a fusion center, creating a profile of an individual’s life.
This data collecting is done through commercial and authorized agencies, using methods such as face-recognition technology, license plate readers on police cruisers, and cell phone tracking. While this may sound like a national issue, and you may assume data is stored in a private location in Washington, DC or in a warehouse in Nevada, most Vermonters may not know that Williston is the location of Vermont’s own fusion center.
“Information gathering and investigative techniques used by the Vermont Fusion Center will be no more intrusive or broad-scale than is necessary in the particular circumstance to gather information it is authorized to seek or retain.”
The VTFC not only collects data from authorized government agencies, but also commercial database entities that provide assurance that their methods for gathering “personally identifiable information” comply with local, state, and federal laws.
The VTACLU’s report states that since 9/11, Vermont and its municipalities have received nearly $100 million in grants from the DHS to deploy new surveillance technologies. One of the most common technologies being used statewide is automated license plate readers (ALPR) on police cruisers and traffic lights.
An ALPR uses digital cameras and optical character recognition software to read the numbers and letters on a license plate, allowing police to read an average of 1,800 plates per hour, whether a car is parked or moving. But ALPRs also record the global positioning of the vehicle, as well as the time at which it was read. This means that where a Vermonter drives and what route they took can be recorded based upon the number of ALPRs they pass. While the system alerts officers to stolen vehicles and operators driving illegally, according to the VTACLU the systems can connect to government databases to access owner information.
VTACLU executive director Allen Gilbert says the report is designed to provide Vermonters with information on the broad scope of surveillance intrusions in the state. “We tried to put an array of pieces together the way people can understand them,” said Gilbert. “People will talk about drones and what they can do and why they pose a threat to democracy, but we try to look at four different tools, and how being a border state changes the calculus of what government agencies can operate within the state.”
The use of ALPRs has increased in Vermont with state police adopting their use, as well as towns such as Rutland, St. Albans, and Wilmington. In St. Albans, ALPRs have increased suspended-license-related arrests 47%. Information from the nearly 50 ALPR systems used in the state is retained by the state Department of Public Safety for 18 months. The VTACLU sees the use of these devices as an infringement, using the example of putting a GPS tracker on an individual’s car, which can only be done if warranted. ALPRs perform the same work but can do so from a stationary location. “There is no warrant for their use and no judicial oversight,” states the report. “People’s rights are always effected whenever government officers record movements of individuals without a warrant.”
According to the VTFC policy, access to information retained is only available “ to authorized persons of an authorized agency when (that) person has provided explanation why the information is needed in their performance of official duties. Simply stated, those who showed a right to know, and a need to know.
Another practice the VTACLU sees as unwarranted surveillance is the use of facial recognition software, which uses mathematics to measure facial features. According to its report, the state department of motor vehicles was provided a $900,000 grant in mid-2012 by the DHS, in order to help with the cost of facial recognition software used when issuing ID cards. According to the VTACLU, DMV officials say the system is being used to help police departments in investigations.
While recent allegations point to the United States spying on the cell phones of foreign leaders, in a state where cell phone service is spotty at best in some areas, and non-existent in others, should there be concern pertaining to this practice? The VTACLU says yes. In a 2010 court case, the VTACLU sought records that would show the use of cell phone tracking in Vermont. While Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled that records relating to cell phone data are not public, according to an article on the VTACLU’s website, “The (Vermont) attorney general’s office was forced to acknowledge that it does indeed sometimes track individuals through their cell phones. The attorney general’s office also confirmed that it obtains the tracking data not through court-issued warrants based on probable cause, but through an administrative request made in a secret proceeding called an ‘inquest.’”
The use of electronic data has become, in some eyes, a double-edged sword, one in which the digital world has become a predominantly convenient and necessary way of life.
The VTACLU is concerned with the use of technology entangling with the individual’s right to privacy. Purchasing your groceries with a credit card, opening a bank account, and paying a bill online have become such necessary conveniences for many, but are less desirable because of the risk of being watched.
The VTACLU, meanwhile, has been active in proposing legislation that limits the use of these surveillance tools. Last year a bill was passed reducing the retention life of ALPR records from four years to 18 months, and clearly defined who can have access to the data and why.
This year the VTACLU is working on moving legislation that would limit the use of drones by police departments in the state, as well as an electronic privacy bill.
“There’s a fundamental belief in this country that a person should be left alone unless suspected of breaking the law,” says VTACLU executive director Allen Gilbert. “Ninety-nine percent of those who pass an ALPR have done nothing wrong, but their information is being stored for 18 months.”