WILLISTON, Vt. -
How far should police go to prevent terror? To solve crimes? Does tracking where Vermonters drive keep us safe? Lawmakers are grappling with the tension between protecting personal privacy and pursuing public safety.
When a man was shot dead in the parking lot of an auto repair shop in Brattleboro on November 8th, an analyst from the Vermont Intelligence Center was deployed to help local police with the investigation.
"The analyst is there to be able to kind of have the overall picture of the investigation and put those pieces together with the interviews. They are also looking at data as far as if there is any phone toll information, they are working with that," said Lt. Kevin Lane, Director of the Vermont Intelligence Center.
The Williston-based center was created 10 years ago. It is one of 78 so-called fusion centers across the country. They were set up after the 9-11 terror attacks to improve information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
WCAX-TV got a rare look inside the secure center, where a dozen analysts process more than 4,000 information requests a year.
"Our day-to-day is really that we look at the threats. We deal specifically -- we try to focus on Vermont. What are the threats to Vermont," Lt. Lane said.
Sometimes those threats are a murder suspect on the loose, or drug trafficking. Or the threat may be related to national security. "The threat changes so we try to change our operations to that threat picture as it changes. Obviously with the recent events in Paris, terrorism has kind of come to the forefront," Lt. Lane said.
Vermont's fusion center is home to five databases, including the massive record captured by automated license plate readers. These devices record plate numbers all over the state. The center also has databases of drug seizures, missing persons, tips and criminal incident reports.
Allen Gilbert at the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont worries about how all this data is being used. "Where because there is so much interesting information in one place, the purpose for which the center was originally established soon becomes lost because there are so many other interesting things that can be done with all this data," he said.
Gilbert is especially concerned about the center's license plate database. More than 40 police agencies have camera systems snapping pictures of passing license plates. Millions of plate numbers, along with date, time and location information, are on file.
Lawmakers are considering whether to change how long the fusion center can keep the license plate data. Right now it must be purged after 18 months. "We think that every day, the data that was collected on all the license plates that didn't match any of those people who were in the hot list of the day should be destroyed," Gilbert said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will take up a bill dealing with several privacy protection issues in January. "The real question is that in the post 9-11 world we have gone a little bit further than comparing notes among law enforcement agencies about investigations that are being undertaken, to include much more information about people about whom there is no investigation or cause for concern," said Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden County.
Ashe suggests license plate data has not been critical in solving a lot of crimes. "So then the long-term question is if the information isn't really being used to solve a crime, why are we hanging on to the whereabouts of most Vermonters essentially for many years?" he said.
Some in law enforcement say the license plate data might prove someone innocent of a crime so why not save it indefinitely?
Still the ACLU would like the Legislature to expand its oversight of the fusion center -- but that is too big a topic to tackle this year. The bill will stick to the license plate data retention question and may offer new protections for electronic communications, medical records and information gathered by drones.