MONTPELIER, Vt. (Mar 21, 2015) – A bill that would put strict limitations on tracking and surveillance through the use of automated license plate reader systems (ALPRs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), and would impact some federal programs, passed unanimously through two Vermont state Senate committees this week.
Introduced by State Sen. Tim Ashe and State Sen. Joe Benning, Senate Bill 18 (S.18) would require all state law enforcement agencies to obtained a warrant before using a drone in surveillance situations. It would also require most information gathered by ALPR systems to be destroyed in 24 hours, placing significant roadblocks in the way of a federal program using states to help track the location of millions of everyday people through pictures of their license plates.
S.18 passed through the Senate Committee on Judiciary by a unanimous 5-0 vote on March 17. On March 19, the bill passed the Senate Appropriations Committee 7-0.
The legislation requires destruction of data captured by an ALPR within 24 hours unless the Department of Motor Vehicles receives a warrant, or comparison with an alert database indicates the information is relevant to a crime, traffic violation or parking violation. Stored data must be destroyed within 18 months unless the time frame is extended by a warrant or preservation order.
S.18 does allow for sharing of legally retained data, but with strict parameters, including a requirement that any receiving agency adhere to Vermont policy.
There provisions would drastically limit the amount of data gathered by ALPRs retained in Vermont, thus limiting the information available to a federal program.
Impact On Federal Programs
As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the federal government, via the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tracks the location of millions of vehicle. They’ve engaged in this for nearly eight years, all without a warrant, or even public notice of the policy.
State and local law enforcement agencies operate most of these tracking systems, paid for by federal grant money. The DEA then taps into the local database to track the whereabouts of millions of people – for the simple act of driving – without having to operate a huge network itself.
Since a majority of federal license plate tracking data comes from state and local law enforcement, passage of SB639 would take a major step toward blocking that program from continuing in Vermont. The feds can’t access data that doesn’t exist.
Law enforcement generally configures ALPRs to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location of vehicles. But according to newly disclosed records obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request, the DEA is also captures photographs of drivers and their passengers.
According to the ACLU,
One internal 2009 DEA communication stated clearly that the license plate program can provide “the requester” with images that “may include vehicle license plate numbers (front and/or rear), photos of visible vehicle occupants [redacted] and a front and rear overall view of the vehicle.” Clearly showing that occupant photos are not an occasional, accidental byproduct of the technology, but one that is intentionally being cultivated, a 2011 email states that the DEA’s system has the ability to store “up to 10 photos per vehicle transaction including 4 occupant photos.”
With the FBI rolling out facial a nationwide recognition program last fall, and the federal government building biometric databases, the fact that the feds can potentially access stored photographs of drivers and passengers, along with detailed location data, magnifies the privacy concerns surrounding ALPRs.
Passage of S.18 would represent a good first step toward putting a big dent in federal plans to continue location tracking, and expanding its facial recognition program. The less data the state makes available to the federal government, the less ability they have to track people in Vermont.
S.18 prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones, or sharing and receiving information gathered by drones unless they obtain a warrant. Law enforcement can use drones without a warrant in emergency situations.
Furthermore, the bill outright bans weapons on drones, as well as the use of facial recognition technology, except to locate a person subject to a warrant.
Impact on the Federal Surveillance State
Although S.18 focuses exclusively on state and local drone use and does not apply directly federal agencies, the legislation would throw a high hurdle in front of some federal programs.
Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the sate and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.
S.18 will now move on for consideration in the full Senate.