Are Vermonters living in a surveillance state? The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont believes we’re fast approaching it — and the organization now has the facts to support that disturbing conclusion. The promise of an actual drone demonstration drew a crowd to a Tuesday morning press conference in Montpelier, where Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, unveiled a new report, “Surveillance on the Northern Border.”
Several years in the making, the 22-page, locally produced report offers a chilling view of the methods used by state and local authorities to gather, compile and sift through digital data that pertains to the activities and movements of ordinary Vermonters. “We are being watched,” the report states. “Today, Vermonters can barely go anywhere without creating a trail of digital information that pinpoints a person’s whereabouts at nearly any time, day after day.”
The ACLU-VT report pieces together all that is known, and not known, about surveillance technologies currently being used to track Vermonters’ location and activities, including their credit card, internet and cellphone usage, and driving habits.
Although most of the technologies and methods outlined in the report exist in other states, too, one critical factor that sets Vermont apart, the report emphasizes, is the international boundary that Vermont shares with Canada. Under an obscure court ruling from the 1970s, U.S. Border Patrol has the authority to stop and search vehicles and individuals anywhere within 100 miles of an international border, regardless of whether they intend to cross it. Because 94 percent of all Vermonters live within that 100-mile stop-and-search zone, the report notes, the Green Mountain State has become a “perverse Ground Zero in the accelerating surveillance society.”
Vermont has few, if any, high-value terrorist targets. Nevertheless, the ACLU-VT points out that the state has received more than $100 million in federal grants since 9/11 to implement new surveillance methods and technologies.
Those methods include: Border Patrol traffic stops and checkpoints miles from the international border; nearly three-dozen state and local police departments using automated license plate readers to capture and store license plate information from thousands of passing vehicles each hour; facial recognition software employed by the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles; domestic drones that are believed to be patrolling the northern border; and a “fusion center” to compile and process data collected from all of the above.
Gilbert concedes there aren’t many new revelations in this report, especially for Vermonters who have followed privacy issues and the expansion of the U.S. surveillance state since 9/11. In fact, much of the information included in the report, including the use of license-plate readers, facial-recognition software and fusion centers, has already been reported by local news agencies, including Seven Days. The report does not confirm rumors that border agents are employing drone technology in Vermont.
Nevertheless, Gilbert expects Vermonters will be surprised when faced with the total surveillance picture. To better illustrate it, the ACLU has also produced a compelling YouTube video that draws from more than five hours of illustrations. There’s also an online map with locations of the technologies and systems described in the report.
Gilbert acknowledges that it’s difficult to predict how Vermonters will react to such government incursions into their personal lives. We live in an age when social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn encourage millions of people to willingly share personal information about themselves —including where they’re from, where they’re going, where they work and who’s in their network of family, friends and coworkers.
After the press conference, the crowd moved outside to watch Matt Goudey of Vermont Community Access Media in Burlington fly the organization's four-propeller DJI Phantom drone over the Statehouse. Those in attendance, especially reporters, seemed more fascinated by the $650 remote-control flying device than horrified by it.