Vermont lawmakers grapple with technology, privacy
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont legislative committee on Tuesday began work to catch up on a range of privacy issues raised by changes in technology.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding unusual out-of-session hearings this week and next to review issues relating to cellphone and email data, electronic medical records, drones and automated license plate readers.
A bill under review would require law enforcement to get a search warrant before using drones in criminal investigations. Lawmakers acknowledged that the current draft of the legislation leaves many questions unanswered — including how to regulate the private and commercial use of drones.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, one of the sponsors of the bill, said its aim is to strike a balance “where we respect people’s right to a private life and privacy while also allowing public safety (agencies) to fulfill their function.”
But it immediately became apparent for those who didn’t already know that technological developments in recent years have imposed huge challenges to what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described in a 1928 dissenting opinion as “the right to be let alone.”
While the bill focused on police use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, committee members quickly noted they may soon have to ask about their use by the media or private businesses. And while the majority-Democrat committee indicated support, at least in principle, for police use of body cameras, its chairman wondered about the privacy impact on victims of domestic violence.
“The victim is severely beaten, traumatized. Now, do we show that on YouTube?” asked Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington.
David Cahill, executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, expressed misgivings about the bill as currently drafted, describing as too broad its requirement that police get a search warrant before obtaining data from communications companies about who sent or received emails, phone calls and texts.
“I am in favor of a requirement of a subpoena signed by judge when the state seeks to obtain the identity of a person associated with a phone number, email address or another type of online account,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “I’m fully in favor of warrant requirement when we then seek to obtain content of communication made by that individual or the location of that individual at the time the communication was made.”
Cahill said evidence from electronic communications was key in solving three notorious killings in Vermont within the past decade: those of University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn in 2006, 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in 2008 and St. Johnsbury Academy teacher Melissa Jenkins in 2012.
Sears said he hoped that hearings Tuesday and Wednesday and on Oct. 21 and 22 would enable the committee to get legislation passed through the Senate when the full Legislature convenes in January. He said the issues were too difficult and complicated for the committee to act on in its half-day meetings in the regular legislative session.