Report Criticizes Increased Fed Surveillance in Vt.
A drone is prepared to be flown over the Statehouse in a demonstration by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. Executive director Allen Gilbert says Vermont is more at risk than people who live farther from an international border because federal law gives Homeland Security agencies the authority to operate more freely within 100 miles of the border. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Executive Director Allen Gilbert of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union watches a drone fly over the Statehouse lawn on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. Gilbert says Vermont is more at risk than people who live farther from an international border because federal law gives Homeland Security agencies the authority to operate more freely within 100 miles of the border.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
Montpelier — Thanks to a flow of money from the Department of Homeland Security, Vermonters are now living in a “surveillance state,” where their every movement can be tracked by police even if they have done nothing wrong, according to a report released on Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We used to be a state where both the notion and reality of privacy rang true,” Vermont ACLU Executive Director Allen Gilbert said during a press conference at the Statehouse. “While the notion of privacy may still ring true, the reality is ... in the last 10 years, Vermont has transformed into a state where we are being watched almost any time of day, day after day.”
The report, “Surveillance on the Northern Border,” documented the array of technology, from license plate readers to facial recognition software and fusion centers, that Vermont authorities have implemented with little oversight or public notice in the past decade.
The ACLU said that geography has made Vermont a “perverse Ground Zero” in U.S. surveillance operations. The U.S. Border Patrol claims authority to stop and search travelers without reasonable suspicion or a warrant within 100 miles of an international border — more than 90 percent of Vermonters live within 100 miles of Canada or the Atlantic Ocean.
DHS has poured $100 million into the state since 9/11, much of it in the form of grants for state and local police. DHS employs five times as many agents today along the Vermont/Canada border as it did in 2011, the ACLU said, and operates drones. Additionally, Border Patrol agents have intermittently set up a checkpoint on Interstate 91 in Hartford, roughly 95 miles from the Canadian border, detaining all passing motorists.
The ACLU’s report contained little new information, but summarized the details of the disparate programs that threaten Vermonters’ privacy:
■ Beginning in 2008, police introduced Automatic License Plate readers, which scan thousands of license plates an hour and send the information to a central database. They have been deployed by more than 30 police agencies in Vermont, including the Vermont State Police and the Hartford Police Department, and were introduced without legislative approval. Earlier this year, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law requiring police to dispose of information gathered by ALPRs within 18 months. Authorities had planned to store the data for four years.
■ In 2012, DHS gave the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles $900,000 to use facial recognition software — which essentially creates an identifying “faceprint” — when issuing driver’s licenses and personal ID cards. DMV officials said in 2012 that the database would not be made available to police, or linked to other databases. But in June, the DMV acknowledged those statements were inaccurate — police are using the system to help investigations.
■ Police can access cell phone tracking data — effectively pinpointing an individual’s location — without having to get a warrant.
■ In Williston,Vt., Vermont State Police operates a fusion center, one of 70 federally funded centers nationwide that aggregate and store data from federal and local law enforcement agencies.
■ The ACLU said it is concerned about the fast spread of drones deployed by both police and hobbyists.
So far, there have been no confirmed reports of Vermont police using drones, the ACLU said. There are no laws in place to ban or manage their use in the state, though Hartford State Rep. Kevin Christie introduced a bill last session that would require police to obtain a warrant before deploying a drone.
(After the press conference, the ACLU demonstrated a $650 drone on the Statehouse steps, while a handful of reporters and passersby looked on.)
Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said earlier this year that law enforcement have no “immediate plans,” to purchase drones.
Mark Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3304.