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Scott tells Vermont DMV to stop giving private investigators personal data

  • Gov. Phil Scott leaves the House chamber after delivering his budget address to the Legislature in Montpelier on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

  • VtDigger analyzed a list of the roughly 700 companies authorized to purchase data from the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles since 2004. VtDigger photo

Published: 12/7/2019 10:37:35 PM
Modified: 12/7/2019 10:37:32 PM

Gov. Phil Scott has instructed the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles to stop providing personal information to private investigators after VtDigger published an investigation detailing the state’s practice of selling or giving away driver data.

State lawmakers also say they plan to propose legislation that would restrict the DMV and other state agencies from selling Vermonters’ personal information.

At his weekly press conference Thursday, the governor said he told the DMV to stop giving private investigators personal information last week.

“I’m not sure what they use the information for,” he said. “Let’s take a step back and take a look and make sure we know what we’re doing with that, and talk to the Legislature.”

Scott said he believes his action will likely lead to a holistic review of the DMV’s practice.

VtDigger’s investigation found that in the last 15 years, the state authorized more than 700 companies and government agencies to receive or purchase personal information about drivers, including where they live, the cars they drive, their driving records and parts of their criminal histories.

In the last four years, the state has made more than $15 million from the practice — mostly from insurance companies and employers who buy data to conduct background checks on their employees.

It is common practice across the country for DMVs to sell or provide information to private companies, including private investigators.

In recent years, Vermont has approved roughly 50 private investigation firms to access the DMV’s trove of personal information.

VtDigger analyzed a list of the roughly 700 companies authorized to purchase data from the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles since 2004.

Private investigators say they plan on asking the governor and DMV officials to reverse the decision to block them from the department’s database. They said the state isn’t making money off of them — they rarely pay the department for the information they access.

In response to the VtDigger story, several lawmakers say they will seek to curb the DMV’s practice of selling or giving out personal information to private companies.

Federal law requires states to sell the information to some private entities, including insurance companies, trucking firms and vehicle manufacturers. But it gives states some latitude to determine other companies it will provide or sell information to.

Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, said senators will examine where the state can take action to limit the practice next year.

“The Transportation Committee in the Senate will certainly look at any restrictions we can place on the information that’s being released,” he said.

Reps. Tom Burditt, R-Rutland, and Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, will be proposing a bill in 2020 that would strictly limit the sale and release of the information.

The legislation, which is being drafted, will likely prohibit the DMV from selling or releasing the information unless they obtain consent from drivers in the system. Under current law, Vermonters have no way to opt out of the sale of their information.

The bill could end up exempting insurance companies and would apply to all state agencies — though Burditt said he isn’t aware of others that sell personal information.

“You know when you go into a store and buy something with a card ... they’re collecting your information and they’re selling it,” Burditt said. “To me that is not government’s business to be selling information. I would like to be relatively sure, unless a system gets hacked, that my information is safe and solid in the government.”

Michael Smith, the DMV’s operations manager, said in an email the department has “not seen any proposed legislative language to comment on.”

“As always we look forward to the opportunity to engage in conversation regarding the both state and Federal laws surrounding the use and release of personal information,” he wrote.

He added that the DMV is undergoing a “comprehensive review of the procedures and policies surrounding the use of DMV data” by private investigators and security companies.

Private investigators are disappointed by Scott’s recent decision and plan on asking the administration to reverse it.

They say they rely on the data to conduct their investigations on behalf of attorneys, or clients who are involved in court proceedings or preparing for litigation.

Susan Randall, a Vermont private investigator who runs VTPrivate Eye LLC, told VtDigger last month that she uses the information to investigate cases on behalf of public defenders, and clients with family court cases.

She said she would use the information available in the database to conduct background checks on witnesses called to testify against her client. On some occasions, she said investigators would use the information to track down parents who might be using drugs in child custody cases.

As a general practice, she said, it’s important for independent investigators to be able to have access to the same data that police and prosecutors have.

“As a civil liberties issue, it’s important for us to have access to the same information that the other branch of government has,” Randall said. “You don’t want to be on the hot seat accused of a crime and not able to then look into the witnesses that are testifying against you.”

Daniel Coane, who operates DAC Investigative Services, has worked as an investigator for decades, said the lack of access to the database presents a “hardship” for the industry.

State law has allowed private investigators to access the DMV information since the 1990s, and he said there has been no issue with the state’s investigators misusing the information.

He and other investigators only access the DMV database when they’re working for clients who already have attorneys and are actively or soon to be involved in criminal or civil litigation, Coane said.

“These investigators aren’t investigators that are just going to snoop on people,” Coane said.

He added that investigators seldom pay for the information they request and receive from DMV officials.

They only pay when they request a certified copy of the records — which he says is rare.

“The big bucks from the state are not coming from us,” Coane said.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, the chair of the House Government Operations Committee, said she wants to learn more about how the DMV has made so much money from the practice.

“It’s not something that passes the immediate ‘Oh that’s fine’ test,” she said.

“That means that they’re selling something of value and I think Vermonters’ should know what information of theirs is that valuable that it commands that kind of a price tag.”

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