ACLU push will put privacy in public eye
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | September 14,2013
MONTPELIER — From the proliferation of license plate readers to the installation of face-identification software at the Department of Motor Vehicles, state and local government in recent years has invested significant sums of money in technology that can be used to track citizens.
Now one Vermont organization is saying enough is enough and will launch a campaign next week aimed at illuminating the scope of taxpayer-funded surveillance activities that have cropped up in the wake of 9/11.
The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union will unveil a report Tuesday highlighting the evolution in recent years of the state’s information-gathering apparatus. As the organization says in a YouTube video released this week announcing its efforts, “We used to be a state where both the notion and the reality of privacy were true.”
“But over the last dozen years, Vermont has been transformed into a state where we’re being watched,” the video says.
Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, said residents here have largely been caught off guard by the cumulative effect of the new technologies.
“Many of these have crept in rather slowly, and I don’t think anyone realized the scope of the individual pieces, and the power of the system when all those pieces are aggregated,” Gilbert said.
Components of the state and federal surveillance program include: license plate readers that aggregate driver data for use by law enforcement personnel; cellphone-tracking technology that allows police, often without a warrant, to determine the location of a specific individual; facial recognition software at the DMV, installed last year, that allows the state to identify people captured on surveillance video; and the use of drones on the Vermont-Canada border.
“Oftentimes we don’t begin taking a hard look at these technologies until some harm has been done,” Gilbert said. “But it’s really remarkable what’s happened here over the past 12 years.”
At a Statehouse news conference next week, Gilbert will call on lawmakers to adopt a range of measures designed to check the power of government to monitor the activities of law-abiding Vermonters.
The ACLU will seek passage of a drone bill that would limit police use of the unmanned aircraft to instances in which they already have a warrant or are intervening in an emergency. The group will also seek passage of legislation that tries to prevent employers from demanding access to a candidate’s online activities before making a job offer.
Gilbert said he’ll also outline a longer-term push for what he calls the “Vermont Electronic Privacy Act.”
“And this would be a law that would require court warrants for law enforcement to obtain people’s emails, phone and Internet records, as well as cellphone location tracking data,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said the revelations in recent months about the scope of government surveillance under the auspices of the National Security Administration have alarmed many citizens and laid the groundwork for substantive reforms.
The ACLU will hold a news conference outlining its efforts Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Statehouse.