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Editorial: They’re Watching; Tracking Citizens’ Private Lives

Where have you been and what have you been doing are parental questions many a former teenager still resents many years after they were posed, even while acknowledging their legitimacy. Vermont state Sen. Tim Ashe deserves credit for calling legislative attention to a law enforcement practice that essentially asks those questions of state residents and collects the answers in digital form without their consent. In other words, it’s not the parents; it’s Big Brother.

Ashe, a Democrat/Progressive from Burlington, has filed a bill that would limit to six months the time that information gleaned from automated license plate readers can be stored in a law enforcement database.

These devices have been deployed by more than 30 law enforcement agencies in the state in recent years. Mounted on police cruisers or at fixed locations, they are capable of recording information about thousands of license plates per hour, including the time and location where they were encountered. Currently this information is stored for four years at the Vermont Fusion Center in Williston, which is operated by state police in conjunction with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

We understand why police find these devices a valuable tool. They make it easy to recognize immediately whether a license plate is associated with a fugitive, a stolen vehicle, an outstanding warrant, a license suspension and so on.

The other side of the coin is that the license plate readers also collect information about many, many people who are suspected of no wrongdoing. And that information — where a vehicle was and at what time — can provide details of private life that it is no business of government to know.

Whom we visit, what church we attend, what doctors we see, what pub we patronize, what movies we view are the stuff of private life. Freedom of association cannot thrive if the government may be monitoring our comings and goings and retroactively reconstructing our activities. Keeping this record of ordinary life on file for years is something we associate with Stalinist-era totalitarian regimes, not with traditional American notions of civil liberties.

Is it conceivable that a three- or four-year-old license plate scan might prove useful in solving a future crime or preventing a terrorist attack? Yes, it is. But history tells us the probability is much higher that the information could end up being abused, or compromised by unauthorized disclosure.

By way of relevant background, U.S. Senate investigators concluded last fall that the regional fusion centers, of which there are about 70 around the country, had failed to provide virtually any useful intelligence since they were established beginning in 2006. The New York Times reported in October that federal officials were also unable to account for as much as $1.4 billion in taxpayer money that was allocated to the fusion centers. More troubling yet, the investigators ran across an email from one department official who warned that the fusion centers were collecting information on Americans “without proper vetting” and were improperly reporting that information through Department of Homeland Security channels, according to the Times.

We hope that the legislative committees that consider Ashe’s bill will thoroughly explore the federal role in accessing and assessing the information contained in the Vermont database. Depending on what they discover, Vermont may want to follow New Hampshire’s lead and essentially prohibit the use of these devices instead of setting a six-month limit on the retention of the records they produce.