Bill To Ensure Vermonters' Privacy Stalls

Mar 24, 2015

A wide-ranging bill designed to ensure Vermonters’ privacy in the digital age isn’t going anywhere soon, as lawmakers have largely abandoned the effort because of pressure on other issues.

The bill’s provisions related to issues such as drone surveillance and collection of consumers’ online data were quickly relegated to a summer study committee. But lawmakers will have a chance to research the topic with the hopes of legislating on the issue next year.

The “clock got run out on [the privacy legislation] because of the gun bill,” said Sen. Tim Ashe, D – Chittenden, in an email, “so now it’s little more than an extension of the existing law.”

The law governing the way police can store and use data from Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) systems, also known as license plate readers, is set to expire on July 1. If lawmakers don’t act this session, there will be no restrictions in Vermont law on how long police can hold data gathered with license plate readers and no restrictions on how the data may be used.

But as Ashe wrote, the Senate Judiciary committee extended the existing law’s lifespan without taking up any efforts to refine the law, despite apparent consensus within the committee that the current storage period for license plate data is too long. Police are currently allowed to store information about vehicles’ whereabouts for 18 months after a license plate scanner records them.

Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Tuesday that he hopes lawmakers will act on these issues before problems arise.

“I think with privacy, the problem is that people don’t recognize the dangers to their privacy until something happens to them specifically,” he said. “Your medical records, for example, are out there and are – we [at the Vermont ACLU] think – much too easy for people to get access to.”

Gilbert said his hope was that lawmakers would make privacy rights enforceable in state law.

“Generally, what we hoped S.18 would do would be to give the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution a 21st century update,” he said. “We think that Vermonters’ right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure is something that deserves robust protection; and we think currently because of digital technology, those protections aren’t in place, and we do think an update is needed.”

Unless House lawmakers take up the issue soon, privacy advocates will have to wait until 2016 to see any substantive progress on these issues.